It's a long, lean road from hunger to hope
World leaders assembled in Rome last week for five days, taking sober measure of the long road distancing hope from reality. This time the issue was global hunger.
The World Food Summit provided an opportunity for governments and international organizations to again join forces in a campaign to ensure food security -- access at all times to the food required for a healthy, active life -- for all the world's people. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations called the summit to address both the present crisis and growing future challenges.
Summit participants were informed that world grain stocks have dwindled to dangerously low levels, pushing export prices up by 30 to 50 percent. This is a sober reminder of the fragility of food supplies in a world that must produce more each year to feed a rapidly increasing population.
Over the past 50 years, agricultural production has managed to keep pace with and at times even outstrip population growth. Yet an estimated 800 million people today still are chronically undernourished; 200 million children under the age of five suffer from serious protein and energy deficiencies, conference officials said.
While today's food stocks dwindle, the future looks no better. By the year 2030, the planet will have to nourish three billion additional people. Simply maintaining current levels of food availability will require rapid and sustainable production gains to increase supplies by more than 75 percent -- without destroying the natural resources on which we all depend.
The greatest suffering, it appears, will remain in sub-Saharan Africa, where food output has fallen farthest behind population growth. Reversing these trends, officials said, will call for measures to make food accessible in addition to increasing production.
At the present time, as many as 82 nations fall into the category of low-income, food-deficit countries: 41 in sub-Saharan Africa and 19 in Asia and the Pacific.
The good news is that the human family can feed itself if it finds the will to do so; the bad news is that after a generation of understanding this reality, there is no such will. At the 1974 World Food Conference, governments examined the global problem of food production and consumption, and solemnly proclaimed that "every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties." More than 20 years later, that conference's goal of eradicating hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition "within a decade" remains an empty dream.
Meanwhile, among the cries heard in Rome last week were those of food workers who called for a massive push by scientists to bring about a new "green revolution" needed to grow bigger crops to stave off hunger. They said that a quantum leap in crop yields on the scale of a similar technological revolution 30 years ago is vital to prevent millions more going hungry as populations explode.
The green revolution of the 1960s and '70s depended on fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation as well as high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice. Global cereal yields practically doubled between 1960 and 1990. But with fertilizer use reaching saturation levels in some countries, scientists are now working with genetic engineering to create crop varieties that environmentalists describe, at the very least, as risky experiments with nature.
Punctuating the point, Greenpeace activists last week blockaded what they believed to be the first shipments to Europe of genetically altered soybeans developed by the U.S. chemicals group, Monsanto.
The official teachings of the Catholic church, meanwhile, appear caught between a resistance to limiting population growth (except through natural family planning, least effective in illiterate populations) and a resistance to biological manipulation, the current locus of food expansion hopes in the minds of many scientists.
Pope John Paul II challenged the delegates "to eliminate the specter of hunger from the planet." He said it was unacceptable that some people starved while some "lived in opulence." He called for a distribution of wealth and food "based not only on profit" and urged the rich countries to cut arms spending and remove the burden of foreign debt borne by poor nations. "This contrast between poverty and wealth is intolerable for humanity," the pontiff told delegates.
National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996