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World Hunger Is Political Rather Than Economic

Bhuwan Thapaliya - 7/5/2007

An American biologist named Paul Ehrlich had predicted in 1969: “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” That never happened, but what he wrote and predicted resembled Thomas Malthus’s prediction.

An early 19th century English economist named Thomas Malthus predicted that people would multiply beyond their capacity to feed themselves. Both of these predictions have repeatedly proved wrong. The world’s population grew much as Malthus expected, but food output more than kept pace. So what actually lead to the food output?

By one estimate, though dubious, the credit goes to the green revolution. According to some experts, as reported by the Economist, Green revolution swept the developing world during the 1960s and 1970s and it saved a billion people from starvation. But that is in itself a paradox given the deteriorating post green revolution agricultural production and its dire effect on the environment.

But according to some researchers, Green Revolution cannot be completely ignored because of the Green Revolution, millions of farmers started using higher yielding hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and weed-killers. The results were breathtaking and it shocked even Paul Ehrlich and his followers, according to the reports.

For example, according to the Economist reports, Mr Elrich had predicted that by the mid-1970s, India would suffer major food shortage but on the contrary by 1990, India was exporting surplus grain throughout the world. And research confirms that other Asian nations such as China , Vietnam and Philippines , using similar techniques, raised production between 1970 and 1995.

The credit goes to the Green Revolution but there were some side effects too. For example, new and new brand of chemicals heavily subsided by the government were over used leading to the catastrophic environmental damage in many parts of the developing world. But the main accusation against the Green Revolution is that it has run out of the gas before reaching its destination. And to make the matter worse for the developing world, the gains of productivity from it are fading off. Law of diminishing returns has set in.

But judging by the consensus, what made the Green Revolution not so green is this fact: paradoxically, even after the Green revolution, billion people all over the world are still malnourished, hungry, starving and the older concern that the world is reaching natural limit to food has not gone away.

And now, in the 21st century, the range of longer run concerns is every greater than it was then. Worries unknown in the past are popping up. For example, Global warming threatens to diminish the productivity of the land. Across Asia vast areas of irrigated land have become waterlogged, and there is drought in Africa .

Moreover, chemical fertilizers have run off into rivers and lakes damaging the very configuration of the water. The water is hyper polluted with the chemicals. And in many places of the world, topsoil is eroding fast, silting rivers and filling reservoirs.

And to make the matter worse, according to the agriculture experts, crop diseases as late blight in potatoes, the virulent fungus responsible for the Irish famine, appear to be spreading again, having developed resistance to traditional farm chemicals.

We live in the world with finite resources and an every growing population. So there is little dispute that food demand will grow rapidly. Hence, in principle it might be possible to reduce food demand directly by restraining population growth.

Experts suggest that this is possible only through massive social intervention or through social change that occurs only when countries are relatively rich. But most countries are poor and unfortunately they are getting poorer and poorer.

The reality is very grave. Though we boast about the achievements of the 21st century, much of the world remains crippled by famine, starvation and hunger. But what is at the root of these problems? Many complain of lack of aid, poverty, and unfair trade terms, but experts cite that most nations are destined to be hungry because of their own internal reasons, whether they be civil war, bad politics, corruption and so on.

Honestly, apart from some, they are not malnourished because there is no food, but because they don’t have enough money to buy the food. According to media reports, farmers in richer nations, under the government subsidies, produce enough food to feed the hungry, but paradoxically, not at the price the hungry people of the poor nations can afford. So this is the dilemma.

Hence, what should the rich world do? Should it give all its food to the poor? Perhaps, not. According to the experts, if the rich world were to give all its food to the poor, this also would not solve the problem as most poor people’s major occupation is farming and they earn their livelihood from farming. This would have negative impact on their ultimate source of livelihood and in the long run they would suffer more. Their argument is realistic but what is the solution.

“The only answer to world hunger is to improve the productivity of farmers in poor countries,” experts are saying.

This will be difficult too given the complexity of the developing world. The developing world’s population is growing fast, but the amount of land available for the cultivation is not. Hence, to feed billions more mouths, they must come out with new technologies to raise the productivity of the soil.

“But practically speaking, more people means not just more mouths to fill, but also more people to administer and refrain them from the trail of violence,” sociologists are saying.

Let us leave socio/economic limitations behind and rather focus on our number one question: Can the world grow all that extra grain ?

Estimates of total capacity vary wildly but some scientists in their quests for ever-higher yielding crops are using many alternatives, which many believe to be dangerous. So what are the options?

“The best alternative and the most relevant is biotechnology, and especially genetic modification (GM),” some scientists are saying.

It has been reported that biologists first found ways of manipulating recombinant DNA in the early 1970s and the first commercially available genetically modified organism(GMO) appeared a mere 11 years ago.

Can GM resolve the hunger problem of the world without any side effects or will it completely devastate our immune system. It is yet to be seen. Hence, it is worth stepping back for a moment to consider the evidence.

“Farmers have been manipulating genomes since long before they knew about genes. They have transferred desirable traits from one plant species to another by cross breeding: this was how wild grasses were turned into wheat. They also selectively bred animals to make them fatter and tastier: this was how wild boars became pigs,” according to the report published by The Economist. [1]

Now, scientists using the GM technology hope to reap the benefit in shorter span of time.

“It typically takes 8-10 years to produce a better plant by cross breeding. But if scientists can isolate a gene in one species that is associated with, say, the ability to grow in salty soil, they can sometimes transfer it directly into the genetic code of another species, without spending years crossing successive generations,” as per the Economist. [2]

Pro GM experts argue by sting that GM is more precise than cross breeding too. According to them GM solves this problem by transferring only the gene associated with the trait that the farmer wants. [3].

According to them, the final advantage of GM is that it allows the transfer of traits between unrelated species. For example, one cannot cross- breed cacti with corn, but you can take a cactus gene that promotes drought resistance and put it in a corn plant. [4]

This means, with GM one can grow a corn even in the desert. But isn’t this unnatural. However, today, the world is flooded with genetically modified foods and the people are consuming but there are potential long term dangers too.

Anti GM experts argue that shifting genes between different species could create health risks and GM crops may also cause environmental problems. For example, crops genetically to repel pests might spur the evolution of pests or poison other species. [5]

All these risks are however speculative. Nonetheless, it is a wise option to test and monitor GM products.

But pro GM supporter says, “Americans have been munching modified corn and soybeans for 11 years without discernible harm. And so far it looks as though GM crops actually help protect the environment, by reducing the need for chemical pesticides.” [6]

This is their version but every conscious consumer has a right to disagree with them. Whatsoever, developing countries have yet to reap the fruits of the GM technology. But that could change as developing countries have loads of poor rural folks who must somehow be fed at any cost.

There are many ways of lessening hunger and GM is not the only option. Furthermore, we must realize that people are hungry because they are poor, not because the earth is running out of food. Why the people are poor? They are poor because of various features such as war, corruption, political uncertainties, environmental disaster etc.

In sum, world hunger is political rather than economic. Hunger is due to political reason rather than the economic reason. To be precise, there is enough food in the world and shortage and hunger are not primarily about food at all. They are about poverty, and poverty should be addressed by policy changes. What about addressing the causes of poverty and tackling them one by one as per the importance basis. Then hunger problem would be automatically solved.


[1] Getting better all the Time: The Economist, 2001.
[2] Human Development Report: 2001: UNDP
[3] World Development Reports: World Bank
[4] Greatest Trends of the Last 100 years: Cato Institute, 2000.

Bhuwan Thapaliya is a Nepal-based economist, author, analyst, poet and journalist. He serves as an Associate Editor of The Global Politician (

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