Approximately 1.2 billion people suffer from hunger (deficiency of calories and protein);
Some 2 to 3.5 billion people have micronutrient deficiency (deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
Yet, some 1.2 billion suffer from obesity (excess of fats and salt, often accompanied by deficiency of vitamins and minerals);
In a world of plenty, a huge number go hungry. Hunger is more than just the result of food production and meeting demands. The causes of hunger are related to the causes of poverty. One of the major causes of hunger is poverty itself. The various issues discussed throughout this site about poverty lead to people being unable to afford food and hence people go hungry.
There are other related causes (also often related to the causes of poverty in various ways), including the following:
Land rights and ownership
Diversion of land use to non-productive use
Increasing emphasis on export-oriented agriculture
Inefficient agricultural practices
Poor crop yield
Lack of democracy and rights
Some of the above are introduced here. (Over time, this will grow, and more will be added so do check back for updates.)
When precious arable land use is diverted to non-productive, or even destructive use, the overall costs to society can be considerable. Examples of such land use include, but is not limited to the following:
The tobacco industry
Tea and Coffee plantations the world over to be sold to the wealthier countries, primarily
Floriculture to sell flowers in the wealthier countries comes at a high cost to the growers
Certain dam projects
Beef and fast food industries using other people’s resources
Sugar cane growing for sugar exports
The tobacco industry
Smoking kills, reduces economic productivity and exacerbates poverty, charges the world’s premier health body, the World Health Organization (WHO).
Smoking also contributes to world hunger, as the tobacco industry diverts huge amounts of land from producing food to producing tobacco:
Madeley also describes in detail other impacts on land from tobacco use:
The land that has been destroyed or degraded to grow tobacco has affects on nearby farms. As forests, for example, are cleared to make way for tobacco plantations, then the soil protection it provides is lost and is more likely to be washed away in heavy rains. This can lead to soil degradation and failing yields.
A lot of wood is also needed to cure tobacco leaves.
Tobacco uses up more water, and has more pesticides applied to it, further affecting water supplies. These water supplies are further depleted by the tobacco industry recommending the planting of quick growing, but water-thirsty eucalyptus trees.
Child labor is often needed in tobacco farms.
For more detail, refer to Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, by John Madeley, (Zed Books, 1999) ch. 4.
Madeley continues on to point out that heavy advertising of tobacco by TNCs can convince the poor to smoke more, and to use money they might have spent on food or health care, to buy cigarettes instead.
A report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids12 says that from a socioeconomic and environmental perspective, there is little benefit in tobacco growing13, and that While a few large-scale tobacco growers have prospered, the vast majority of tobacco growers in the Global South barely eke out a living toiling for the companies. Furthermore, the cigarette companies continue to downplay or ignore the many serious economic and environmental costs associated with tobacco cultivation, such as chronic indebtedness among tobacco farmers (usually to the companies themselves), serious environmental destruction caused by tobacco farming, and pesticide-related health problems for farmers and their families.
In fact, it is interesting to note that the tobacco industry has gone to extraordinary level to discredit the World Health Organisation (WHO) and others that are fighting tobacco issues 14, as a report from the WHO describes. A Committee of Experts had been set up in October 1999 to enquire into the nature and extent of undue influence which the tobacco industry had exercised over UN organisations. This Committee produced the report that found that the tobacco industry regarded the World Health Organization as one of their leading enemies, and that the industry had a planned strategy to contain, neutralise, reorient WHO’s tobacco control initiatives. They added that the tobacco industry documents show that they carried out their plan by:
staging events to divert attention from the public health issues raised by tobacco use;
attempting to reduce budgets for the scientific and policy activities carried out by WHO;
pitting other UN agencies against WHO;
seeking to convince developing countries that WHO’s tobacco control program was a First World agenda carried out at the expense of the developing world;
distorting the results of important scientific studies on tobacco;
discrediting WHO as an institution.
While some countries, such as the US have had the resources and political will to tackle the large tobacco corporations, these multinationals have intensified their efforts in other regions of world such as Asia, to continue growing and selling cigarettes, as well as expanding advertising (to create demand, not meet).
Reports from the WHO show that there is a lot of political maneuvering by large tobacco companies to lower prices, to increase sales, etc. In addition, the poor and small farmers are the ones most affected by the impacts of tobacco companies. The hard cash earned from this foreign investment is offset by the costs in social and public health. In effect, profits are privatized; costs are socialized.
If one doesn’t wish to give up smoking because it is considered their free choice, how about giving up smoking so others may have a choice?
More issues around tobacco and its impacts, the actions of the tobacco industry, attempts at global regulation, and more are provided on this site’s tobacco15 section.
Environmental and Economic damage from coffee production
Growing flowers can have a high cost to growers
Floriculture too is a growing field in some developing countries. However, as Madeley explains, it too has some negative effects, such as:
Divert land use away from growing needed food. (In Colombia for example, floriculture was seen as a way to avoid cocaine growing. Food growth could have been more directly positive for the growers and local communities.)
Very low wages
Pesticide poisoning and other severe health problems. (Some of these pesticides are banned in the West.)
Women suffer high miscarriage rates
For more detail, refer to Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, by John Madeley, (Zed Books, 1999) ch. 4, pp 64 - 70 (Non-traditional export crops).
Anuradha Mittal also describes the effects in some parts of India:
And in Ecuador, Mother Jones magazine adds that
The effects of dam projects on the poor
While not necessarily a non-productive use as such, dam projects have long been criticized for displacing millions of people and not providing them the benefits promised, while also degrading the environment and even flooding arable land.
After reactions to a pertinent report by the World Bank, a World Commission on Dams (WCD) was established in 1998 with a mandate to review the development effectiveness of large dams and develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for large dams.
The World Commission on Dams (WCD), released a report at the end of 2000 criticizing dam projects for failing to deliver promised benefits22 while affecting millions of poor people’s lives in developing countries and degrading the environment.
They also pointed out23 that dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable. However, in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment. Lack of equity in the distribution of benefits has called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives.
The full report24 from the World Commission on Dams is on their web site.
The World Bank, involved in many dam projects, received criticism25 for choosing to only reference the WCD report rather than adopt them as rules governing its operations.
Beef and fast food industries using other people’s resources
Increasing emphasis on liberalized, export-oriented and industrial agriculture
In many cases where food is grown, it is often for exports. In some cases, while local people may be going hungry, they are growing food to export for the hard cash that would be earned. The increasingly export-oriented economies are being promoted by the wealthier Northern countries and the international institutions that they have strong influence over, the IMF and World Bank, as detailed in the Structural Adjustment36 section on this site. The result of this is that the wealthier nations tend to benefit while poorer countries generally lose out.
Sometimes, the cost of the food produced can be more than what the local people can afford and has to be exported to earn cash. Land and labor is therefore diverted away from immediate needs. Additionally, the local food growers are then subject to the fashions and preferences of external communities and market demands. If they no longer like the range of products as much, the entire local economy could be affected. The banana trade37 in the Caribbean is an example of this.
Free trade and other economic agreements that reduce subsidies on local farms etc, has a worse impact on developing countries. We hear of these subsidies being barriers for foreign investment and more open trade. Yet, as Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) have tried to do, it results in opening up economies that may not be ready to do so. This therefore results in unequal trade, as poorer countries and their industries often cannot compete with multinationals — especially if they end up competing with subsidized industries as Joseph Stiglitz explains earlier.
In addition, SAPs have opened up these economies in such a way that focus on export means base foods, commodities and resources are exported, while finished items are typically made from these in first world economies, which are more costly for poor nations to purchase. As J. W. Smith has described, this results in the Third World producing for the First World (which was the pattern during imperial and colonial times):
Yet, the wealthier nations realize the importance of food security and heavily subsidize their own farming infrastructures:
Additionally, some of the political dynamics that result in the poverty that most food growers are in, also leads to continued misery:
Historically, the poor have often been marginalized by forcing them off their lands on to land less suitable for agriculture. This has been achieved through (sometimes violent) change and control of legal land ownership and related laws, especially during the colonial times.
When much of the colonialized countries broke free from their imperial rulers, this pattern didn’t go away.
There was a continued concentration by the newer elites of poor countries (who, as discussed in some of the geopolitics sections of this site, were often placed in power by former colonial and imperial rulers).
In some cases the new elites were dictators and despots. In other cases, the economic relations of the society had been transformed so much, that systems like mass plantation systems continued as those in charge were in favor with former colonial masters, and now had more power.
Combined with the expansion in global trading today, and the promotion of export-oriented economies as a solution to poverty, this has led to local and national elites in poor countries exporting to wealthier nations where the only real market for their food and other products can be effectively sold.
For some emerging economies, the growing middle class is able to add to this consumption so that at least adds to the local economy. However, that still hides how the poor still lose out as the market rarely caters for their needs (which are many, but with little purchasing power).
A continuing circle like this produces a downward spiral of deeper poverty and further marginalization.
The less suitable land also leads to further environmental degradation of those and other areas as well such as forests.
Peter Rosset describes the above very clearly as part of a look at some of the causes of poverty and hunger in his essay Genetic Engineering of Food Crops for the Third World: An Appropriate Response to Poverty, Hunger and Lagging Productivity?41 He goes on to show how this has led to the current downward spiral, quoted in summarized form below:
The marginalization of the majority leads to narrow and shallow domestic markets
So landowning elites orient their production to export markets where consumers do have purchasing power
By doing so, elites have ever less interest in the well-being or purchasing power of the poor at home, as the poor are not a market for them, but rather a cost in terms of wages to be kept as low as possible.
By keeping wages and living standards low, elites guarantee that healthy domestic markets will never emerge, reinforcing export orientation.
The result is a downward spiral into deeper poverty and marginalization, even as national exports become more competitive in the global economy.
One irony of our world, then, is that food and other farm products flow from areas of hunger and need to areas were money is concentrated, in Northern countries. (Bold emphasis added; italics emphasis is original)
Food as a Commodity
And when food is treated as a commodity, those who can get food are the ones who can afford to pay for it. To illustrate this further, the following is worth quoting at length (bulleting and spacing formatting is mine, text is original):
Poverty is the state for the majority of the world’s people and nations. Why is this? Is it enough to blame poor people for their own predicament? Have they been lazy, made poor decisions, and been solely responsible for their plight? What about their governments? Have they pursued policies that actually harm successful development? Such causes of poverty and inequality are no doubt real. But deeper and more global causes of poverty are often less discussed.
Meaningful long-term alleviation of hunger is rooted in the alleviation of poverty, as poverty leads to hunger. World hunger is a terrible symptom of world poverty. If efforts are only directed at providing food, or improving food production or distribution, then the structural root causes that create hunger, poverty and dependency would still remain. While resources and energies are deployed to relieve hunger through technical measures such as improving agriculture, and as important as these are, inter-related issues such as poverty means that political solutions are likely required as well for meaningful and long term hunger alleviation.
Food and agriculture goes to the heart of our civilizations. Religions, cultures and even modern civilization have food and agriculture at their core. For an issue that goes to the heart of humanity it also has its ugly side.
This issue explores topics ranging from the global food crisis of 2008, to issues of food aid, world hunger, food dumping and wasteful agriculture such as growing tobacco, sugar, beef, and more.