Solving World Hunger Means Solving World Poverty

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

The current Summit [World Food Summit: Fives Years Later] was called by the United Nations to examine why hunger persists despite the 1996 Plan of Action. Progress has lagged by at least 60% behind the goals for the first five years, and today conditions are worsening in much of the world. Without a drastic reorientation of policies, it will be impossible to meet the 2015 goal, and hunger may actually increase. While official documents prepared for the meeting decry a lack of will and call for more resources to be directed at reducing hunger, the fact is that more fundamental changes are needed.

Peter Rosset, The World Food Summit: What Went Wrong?1, June 4, 2002

On this page:

  1. Hunger and Poverty are Related Issues
  2. Food as a Human Right
  3. Solving Hunger Effectively Requires Addressing Causes of Poverty

Hunger and Poverty are Related Issues

A common, often altruistic, theme amongst many is to be able to solve world hunger via some method that may produce more food. However, often missed is the relationship between poverty and hunger. Hunger is an effect of poverty and poverty is largely a political issue. (While manifesting itself as an economic issue, conditions causing poverty are political and end up being economic.)

As shown in the Genetically Engineered Food and Human Population sections on this web site, people are hungry not due to lack of availability of food, but because people do not have the ability to purchase food and because distribution of food is not equitable. In addition, there is also a lot of politics influencing how food is produced, who it is produced by (and who benefits), and for what purposes the food is produced (such as exporting rather than for the hungry, feedstuff, etc.)

[A]ccess to food and other resources is not a matter of availability, but rather of ability to pay. Put bluntly, those with the most money command the most resources, whilst those with little or no money go hungry. This inevitably leads to a situation whereby some sections of humanity arguably have too much and other sections little or nothing. Indeed, globally the richest 20 per cent of humanity controls around 85 per cent of all wealth, whilst the poorest 20 per cent control only 1.5 per cent.

Ross Copeland, The Politics of Hunger2, September 2000

Peter Rosset, co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy3, quoted at the top of this page, highlights some of the wider issues around hunger. He argues that it is not just a challenge of producing more and more food, but there are many political and economic issues underscoring the problems:

Research carried out by our Institute reveals that since 1996, governments have presided over a set of policies that have conspired to undercut peasant, small and family farmers, and farm cooperatives in nations both North and South. These policies have included runaway trade liberalization, pitting family farmers in the Third World against the subsidized corporate farms in the North (witness the recent U.S. Farm Bill), forcing Third World countries to eliminate price supports and subsidies for food producers, the privatization of credit, the excessive promotion of exports to the detriment of food crops, the patenting of crop genetic resources by corporations who charge farmers for their use, and a bias in agricultural research toward expensive and questionable technologies like genetic engineering while virtually ignoring pro-poor alternatives like organic farming and agroecology.

Peter Rosset, The World Food Summit: What Went Wrong?4, June 4, 2002

Back to top

Food as a Human Right

Reporting from the World Food Summit 2002, and highlighting some shocking obstacles to getting a declaration on tackling these issues, Peter Rosset reported on day one:

ROME—At 3:00 AM on Monday morning the United States stood alone among all nations of the world in blocking further discussion of the draft text of the declaration that governments will sign at the World Food Summit. What was leading the U.S. to stop the all night negotiating session? First, the U.S. wanted all references to food as a human right to be deleted, and second, the U.S. wanted strong language saying that genetically modified (GM) crops are a key way to end hunger. The Third World nations organized in the Group of 77 wanted mandatory language on the Right to Food, while Europe and Canada held out for the compromise of a voluntary Code of Conduct. No other nation felt strongly that GM crops should receive prominence.

Peter Rosset, United States Behavior at World Food Summit: Reprehensible5, Report from the 2002 World Food Summit: Day 1, June 10, 2002 [Emphasis Added]

And at the end of the summit:

The only positive thing in the official declaration was the proposal for a voluntary code of conduct on the Right to Food to be developed over the next two years. The United States, which had vehemently opposed the right to food in any form, finally accepted this version which is a) not mandatory and b) not immediate. Apart from that, the declaration is a disaster as far as ending hunger goes. It repeats the flaws of the 1996 Summit declaration which led to the failure to meet hunger reduction goals over the past five years, including an endorsement of free trade, a recommendation of more structural adjustment for the poorest countries, and a call for greater private investment. It also adds the golden goose that the U.S. wants—biotechnology—and drops a key victory from the 1996 declaration, land reform. All in all, a bad performance by governments.

Peter Rosset, Report from the 2002 World Food Summit: Day 46, June 13, 2002

The U.S.’s position on opposing the right to food comes at odds with most others in the world. The world’s premier organization on food issues, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is one example. As reported by Europaworld, an international development organization, Jacques Diouf, the FAO’s Director-General reiterated the link between hunger, poverty and basic rights7, saying, Failure to address the silent under-nourishment of millions of children and adults in peacetime should also be regarded as a violation of the right to food.

Furthermore, because of the immediate urgency to address hunger, the issue of promoting food itself as a human right, and its denial as an abuse of rights, has been seen by many as paramount. This has been the cry for many years by the Institute for Food and Development Policy (or Food First8 for short), for example.

Back to top

Solving Hunger Effectively Requires Addressing Causes of Poverty

While providing solutions to hunger via more efficient food production seems to be a noble endeavor, problems lie in distribution, land ownership, inefficient use of land, politics and powerplay. Currently, food production rates are higher than population growth (although that is no reason to be complacent). Tackling hunger directly by providing more charitable contributions of food, or even finding ways to increase production, is attacking the symptoms of poverty only, not root causes.

That is not to say that research to increasing food production should not be done, just that it should be recognized that the deeper problem of fighting the roots of poverty that causes hunger would allow better use of resources in the long term. Not fighting root causes of poverty and only fighting hunger will be costly in the long run as people will continue to be hungry and resources will be continually diverted to remedy hunger in a superficial manner without addressing its cause.

Solving world hunger by only increasing food production and not addressing root causes of hunger (i.e. poverty), would not alleviate the conditions that create poverty in the first place. If the poorer nations aren’t given the sufficient policy space and means to produce their own food, if they are not allowed to produce and create industry for themselves, then poverty and dependency will continue.

World hunger exists because: (1) colonialism, and later subtle monopoly capitalism, dispossessed hundreds of millions of people from their land; the current owners are the new plantation managers producing for the mother countries; (2) the low-paid undeveloped countries sell to the highly paid developed countries because there is no local market [because the low-paid people do not have enough to pay] … and (3) the current Third World land owners, producing for the First World, are appendages to the industrialized world, stripping all natural wealth from the land to produce food, lumber, and other products for wealthy nations.

This system is largely kept in place by underpaying the defeated colonial societies for the real value of their labor and resources, leaving them no choice but to continue to sell their natural wealth to the over-paid industrial societies that overwhelmed them. To eliminate hunger: (1) the dispossessed, weak, individualized people must be protected from the organized and legally protected multinational corporations; (2) there must be managed trade to protect both the Third World and the developed world, so the dispossessed can reclaim use of their land; (3) the currently defeated people can then produce the more labor-intensive, high-protein/high-calorie crops that contain all eight (or nine) essential amino acids; and (4) those societies must adapt dietary patterns so that vegetables, grains, and fruits are consumed in the proper amino acid combinations, with small amounts of meat or fish for flavor. With similar dietary adjustments among the wealthy, there would be enough food for everyone.

J.W. Smith, The World’s Wasted Wealth 2, (Institute for Economic Democracy9, 1994), pp. 63, 64.

It is worth repeating here the quote from the end of the previous page, about food as a commodity:

To understand why people go hungry you must stop thinking about food as something farmers grow for others to eat, and begin thinking about it as something companies produce for other people to buy.

  • Food is a commodity. …
  • Much of the best agricultural land in the world is used to grow commodities such as cotton, sisal, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, and cocoa, items which are non-food products or are marginally nutritious, but for which there is a large market.
  • Millions of acres of potentially productive farmland is used to pasture cattle, an extremely inefficient use of land, water and energy, but one for which there is a market in wealthy countries.
  • More than half the grain grown in the United States (requiring half the water used in the U.S.) is fed to livestock, grain that would feed far more people than would the livestock to which it is fed. …

The problem, of course, is that people who don’t have enough money to buy food (and more than one billion people earn less than $1.00 a day), simply don’t count in the food equation.

  • In other words, if you don’t have the money to buy food, no one is going to grow it for you.
  • Put yet another way, you would not expect The Gap to manufacture clothes, Adidas to manufacture sneakers, or IBM to provide computers for those people earning $1.00 a day or less; likewise, you would not expect ADM (Supermarket to the World) to produce food for them.

What this means is that ending hunger requires doing away with poverty, or, at the very least, ensuring that people have enough money or the means to acquire it, to buy, and hence create a market demand for food.

Richard H. Robbins, Readings on Poverty, Hunger, and Economic Development10

To address the causes of poverty then, is where more effort needs to be. However, that is no easy task.

Food subsidies have often been used by governments to help the poor, though many nations have either voluntarily, or under pressure from aid donating countries actually removed these subsidies.

Mozambique recently reintroduced food subsidies after deadly protests resulted from fuel and food price hikes.

However, on their own, food subsidies may not help in the longer term if additional policies to help the poor get out of poverty are not in place, as Save the Children in Mozambique says in this video.

Direct from Mozambique, Africa: Mario Mabede of Save the Children says subsidies meant to calm recent food price protests are not what’s needed to effectively address widespread hunger in his country. What’s the Smart Way to Fight Hunger?11, Save the Children, October 14, 2010

Giving or donating food as aid or charity in non-emergency situations is also not always the long term answer, either. The section on food dumping, next, reveals additional details on how food aid has been used as a foreign policy tool by some wealthy nations to their advantage and interests. Rather than benefiting recipients, such food aid has amounted to economic dumping, helping destroy local farmers and their production, while supporting and bolstering large agribusiness. Hunger and poverty has increased as an effect.

Back to top

0 articles on “Solving World Hunger Means Solving World Poverty” and 2 related issues:

World Hunger and Poverty

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.

Read “World Hunger and Poverty” to learn more.

Food and Agriculture Issues

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.

Read “Food and Agriculture Issues” to learn more.

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

Back to top

Document revision history

Added small note about food subsidies in Mozambique not being enough on its own, for the long term. The rest of the page remains untouched (for now) since June 15, 2002.