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Compared to war, feeding world’s hungry has modest price tag


As the world stood on the brink of a war whose cost one team of researchers has pegged at $600 billion, a Rome conference was told March 19 that a principal source of global conflict, chronic hunger, could be cut in half for the comparatively modest sum of $24 billion.

Speakers at the conference, sponsored by Rome’s Lay Centre and attended by a cross-section of diplomats, activists and journalists, suggested that in the context of fears that war in Iraq may leave the world in flames, a successful campaign to curb hunger could help ease tension.

The estimate of war costs comes from two Australian researchers, Reserve Bank board member Warwick McKibbin and Centre for International Economics director Andrew Stoeckel, who have pegged the price tag of a short war followed by a year or two of rebuilding at $600 billion. Using models based on the 1991 Gulf War, McKibbin and Stoeckel estimate that such a short war would shave 1 percent off global GDP over the next few years.

Dianne Spearman of the United Nations-sponsored World Food Program told the March 19 conference that the number of chronically malnourished people in the world today is 840 million. That’s roughly equivalent, she said, to the combined population of the United States, Canada, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan. Of the 840 million hungry, 799 million are in the developing world.

“This is a scandal,” Spearman said. “Starvation in a world of plenty is morally unacceptable.”

The United Nations’ 1996 World Food Summit adopted a commitment to cutting the number of hungry people in half by 2015, an aim that Spearman said could be achieved for roughly $24 billion, split between direct food aid programs and investments in agriculture and rural infrastructure.

Despite the fact that progress has been registered in a few traditional crisis zones such as China and Nigeria, Spearman said that overall trends are not encouraging. In the 1990s, she said, 96 million people were added to the rolls of the chronically hungry in 47 nations. The global community has yet to follow its commitment to hunger reduction with a new infusion of resources. Six southern African nations are today facing the very real danger of famine.

If present trends continue, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, it will require 100 years to achieve the goal of cutting hunger in half.

“We are losing the battle,” Spearman said.

She said that while $24 billion may seem a great deal of money, by way of comparison industrialized nations spend more than $300 billion each year on agricultural subsidies. It’s not a question of resources, Spearman argued, but priorities.

Tony P. Hall, currently U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and a former Democratic congressman from Ohio, told the conference that the United States has private agricultural sales each year of $56 billion, and spends some $38 billion annually on domestic anti-hunger campaigns. In that context as well, he suggested, the amount being proposed for global efforts is modest.

American economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued that in a global economy measured in the trillions, $24 billion could be considered a “rounding error.”

Hall said that the struggle against global hunger is for him a means of uniting his professional activity and his Christian religious beliefs. He said that he sees a lack of will, both political and spiritual, to deal with hunger at the international level.

Among the causes of hunger, Spearman cited war, a lack of infrastructure and distribution systems in the developing world, and, more recently, both HIV/AIDS and climate change. The number of “natural disasters” registered in the world -- earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and the like -- was three times higher in the 1990s than the 1960s, Spearman said, reflecting global warming and the other results of human intervention in the environment. That trend is expected to intensify over the next 30 years.

James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, took the conversation on hunger in a different direction.

Nicholson said that he feels a special passion on the issue because he knows what it’s like to live on an empty stomach. Growing up in Iowa, he said, his alcoholic father was frequently absent from the family, and Nicholson, his six brothers and sisters, and his mother sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

In this context, Nicholson argued that opposition, mostly from Europe, to the use of genetically modified organisms in food production is “irresponsible.” He noted that 40 percent of the corn Americans eat today is the result of genetic modification, as is 75 percent of the soybeans, so far without a single report of a stomachache or allergic reaction due to genetically engineered foods.

Nicholson charged that European opposition has more to do with protecting agricultural markets than concern for health consequences. He said that some European governments have intimidated African nations against adopting genetically modified grains, for example, saying that European nations won’t import the crops that result.

Later speakers, however, suggested that American companies pushing genetically modified crops may also have less-than-noble motives, especially the desire to assert patent rights over both seed and crops.

Rome’s Lay Centre is a residence and formation center for lay students at the city’s various pontifical universities. Its coordinator, Donna Orsuto, is an American lay scholar who teaches at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

Related Web sites

U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization

World Food Program

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003