National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 2, 2004

Report shows world hunger increasing


As the United States was appropriating $87 billion for Iraq, the United Nations was announcing that the number of hungry people in the world was increasing, reversing steady progress over the last three decades.

The Rome-based Food and Agricultural Organization said that one in every seven persons is malnourished and that the goal of halving world hunger by the year 2015 is out of reach.

A total of 842 million hungry in the world in the 1995-97 reporting period increased by 18 million in the 1999-2001 period. The rise in hunger came even though the world produced enough food. Indeed in 22 nations the number of undernourished decreased in 1995-2000. But the news on hunger was grim in sub-Saharan Africa where AIDS and wars produced devastation.

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s report, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World,” is a marvel of documentation and analysis. It is the fifth edition of a study initiated by the organization with the collaboration of all of the U.N. agencies related to nutrition and agriculture.

The document is a summary of world trends since the organization and the entire world met in 1996 at the World Food Summit in Rome.

All the relevant information is well known; it is the political will that is missing. But the problem, while simple from the viewpoint of the morality involved, can get very technical. One of the least recognized facts in the United States is the reality that huge subsidies to farmers in the United States and Europe allow the recipient of these subsidies to sell agricultural products at substantial discount -- thereby making it impossible for farmers in underdeveloped nations to sell their cotton or farm products at competitive prices.

The report, despite its depressing conclusions, is encouraging in that it notes the vast improvements in food processing since the organization began in the late 1940s. In 50 years the yields in agriculture have quintupled or more. Places like China and Vietnam have witnessed miracles in their production of food. Potable water is generally more available and the incidence of crop disasters has decreased. The last 50 years have, in other words, probably produced the best century for food production in any period in the history of the world.

But overall the report is sobering news. How awful that every seventh human being is being denied the basic right to food. At least two-thirds of these persons are children. Consequently some 500 million children are being deprived of these necessities, which may make these individuals ill-equipped to carry on a normal life and unable to make a living.

The heroic stories of how many persons are seeking to conquer hunger make the report almost inspiring. Sierra Leone has set 2007 as a target date for eliminating hunger. The heads of state of the African Union at a recent meeting unanimously pledged to increase agriculture’s public expenditures by at least 10 percent within the next five years. But the Food and Agriculture report is bleak reading for any American. The United States is scarcely visible in the report. The experts are not American. The feeling that one gets from studying the report is that the United States, the richest nation on Earth, is missing in action.

Not mentioned is the promising McGovern-Dole bill. This proposal by former Sens. George McGovern and Bob Dole, both experts in agriculture, propose that there be substantial allocations of farm products to provide breakfast or lunch for schoolchildren around the world. The proposal would be terrific for farmers, would induce children, especially girls, to come to school and could help to alleviate if not eliminate malnutrition in the children of the world.

The McGovern-Dole bill could pass if there was a will to do so.

The report haunts those who read it. It relates the story of 798 million people who are chronically hungry. Their plight is correctable. Their numbers are greater than the total population of Latin America and sub-Sahara Africa combined.

Oxfam America, Bread for the World and other private groups have been working on world hunger for many years. They bring glory and pride to those who support and admire them. But the United States as a nation has been on the sidelines. There are no excuses left.

Jesuit Fr. Robert F. Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 2004

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