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Hunger amidst plenty

Print edition : Jan 05, 2002

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The Food and Agriculture Organisation's latest annual report discusses important factors relating to food insecurity but ignores policy as a factor that affects vulnerable sections' access to food.

ALTHOUGH many nations have achieved food security in overall quantitative terms, the food stocks are very often not accessible to the vulnerable sections of population owing to a variety of factors. World food production has grown faster than world population in the past three decades, according to this year's report on the "State of Food Insecurity in the World", brought out by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a United Nations agency. The report deliberates on these and related developments and also identifies who the most food insecure groups are and where they are located and explores means of reaching out to help them.

The latest report is the third in a series of annual reports brought out by the FAO. The very fact that such an exercise in stock-taking has been launched underscores how grave the problem of food insecurity is, particularly in the developing world and in what are called transition nations. However, in the FAO's understanding, though food production and access to food are important, they are not the only factors at play. Civil wars and other kinds of extreme shocks affect food security and increase the number of the undernourished.

While the report is realistic in its assessment of food insecurity, it occasionally falls back on the theory of "population eating into the fruits of development". The profligate life-styles of the few people who control the majority of the world's resources and the inequities of income could have been dealt with adequately. The effect of globalisation on agriculture, whether positive or negative has been left out. While a good amount of responsibility has been assigned to communities, economic and political power centres that have a bearing on food security have not been discussed. The report has also overlooked embargoes and trade sanctions and their detrimental effects, especially on countries that already have large undernourished populations.

The section on "Assessing nutritional status and vulnerability" has a chapter on Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and their impact, and another section deals with recent shocks to food security (which include natural disasters and extreme climatic changes), the adverse impact of structural adjustment and liberalisation policies on food security and agriculture in the 1990s does not figure anywhere in the report. Between the period of 1990-92 and 1997-99 the number of undernourished people in countries in East Asia, South-east Asia, West Africa and South America went up. Countries that contributed significantly to the increase in the number of undernourished people are the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, the United Republic of Tanzania, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Uganda, Kenya and Iraq. On the other hand, there has been a decrease in the number of undernourished people in developing countries such as China, Peru, Indonesia, Nigeria, Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil, Ghana, Pakistan and Sudan.

Assessing the last decade, the FAO report notes that the total number of chronically undernourished people in the developing world fell by approximately 40 million. However, the average rate of decline was low and hence the annual reduction required to be achieved to meet the target set by the World Food Summit, 1996 - that is, of reducing the number of undernourished people by half by 2015 - has actually grown. Greater political will, commitment from development partners of nations and a rejection of the "business as usual" approach by nation-states can help eradicate hunger.

The FAO estimates of 1997-99 (the latest available figures) say there are 815 million undernourished people in the world, 777 million of them in developing countries, 27 million in the transition countries and some 11 million in developed, industrialised nations. However, the overall decline in the number of the undernourished can actually be misleading as only 32 of the 99 developing countries that were studied recorded a decrease in their numbers between the 1990-92 and 1997-99 periods. Countries that have performed well could have done so by either devoting more resources to increased agricultural production or importing large quantities of food, the FAO report says.

The Sub-Saharan African population was found to have the highest proportion of undernourished people. While population growth may have in some countries contributed to an increase in the number of undernourished people, other important factors that affect food security include civil war and politico-economic crises. Among the worst performers are the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq where there have been considerable increases in the number of people facing undernutrition and other forms of deprivation. In Afghanistan the severity of the problem must have multiplied several times following the U.S.' bombardment.

In countries where the number of undernourished people has declined, agricultural production as well as per capita food availability is better as compared to nations where their number has increased. The former also have a lower population growth rate. Inadequate allocation of resources - both external and internal - for agricultural development has had a strong impact on the number of undernourished people. Factors relating to access to food within countries too have been crucial. The paradox of hunger amidst plenty in the case of India highlights this.

One interesting aspect that the report brings out is the gender dimension of food security. The main variables that influence undernourishment are those that reflect either extreme national shocks such as food emergencies, loss of civil rights and declines in life expectancy, or the growth or fall in agricultural productivity. The gender variable too is instrumental in determining the number of undernourished people, albeit limitedly. In a study done by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), variables such as the level of women's education, national per capita food availability, health and environmental factors and the status of women in society are found to have an impact on undernourishment. Realistically, these factors may play a more crucial role in a stable situation, states the FAO report. But their absence can have a devastating impact on the well being of women, the girl child, in particular.

IF the per capita food availability in the world has risen from 2,410 kilocalories to 2,800 kilocalories between the periods of 1969-71 and 1997-99, why are there still so many people going hungry? The answer lies in distribution and the policies that govern it. The FAO report does confront this question though it stops short of elaborating on distribution as a matter of policy. In theory, it says, a smaller increase in world food production will suffice if that increase is accompanied by equitable access to food. This can be achieved by redistribution - of the food itself, the means of producing it, or of the purchasing power needed to buy it - to those who are currently on the lower rungs of the food access ladder.

Redistributing food might not be an insurmountable problem, but redistributing the means of production requires political will, given the nexus between the owners of agricultural land and the political class. While the rate of access to food among countries is not very unequal, the situation changes within countries and consequentially within households. The FAO report at least concedes that income inequalities determine access to food among households and that intra-country income inequality is enormous. Another fact that is reiterated in the report is that rising incomes reduce the expenditure on food as a proportion of the total household expenditure.

The report highlights certain attempts made by governments in developing countries such as Bangladesh and Guatemala to combat undernourishment by creating community-based growth monitoring (in the former) and vulnerability profiling (in the latter) systems. Under the National Nutrition Programme, a decentralised system of monitoring exists; in villages where more than 5 per cent of the children are severely undernourished, special follow-up action is taken. Nutrition-related data are collected for a broader surveillance.

Another significant area that the FAO report focuses on is the connection between undernutrition and diarrhoea. This complex is among the major causes of childhood morbidity and mortality in the developing world. The death rate among undernourished children suffering from diarrhoea is far higher than that among their better nourished counterparts, states the FAO report. Diarrhoea is one of the world's five biggest killers, and a billion episodes are reported occur annually among children under five years of age in the developing world. Of the nearly 12 million children five who died in 1995, about 70 per cent suffered from one or more of these five conditions: malaria, measles, acute respiratory infections, undernutrition and diarrhoea.

The report's analysis of food exports, especially fish exports, as a means of raising the incomes of the vulnerable, glosses over the working conditions of the people involved, especially those in the fish export sector in developing countries. It quotes Africa as an example where in the 1990s, fish exports rose by 10.2 per cent a year, much faster than fish imports. The revenue generated by these exports is ostensibly used for the import of essential items. However, it is not clear whether this revenue actually increases either the food availability or the per capita income of the vulnerable. Also, the question of their working conditions and wages remains unanswered. While these methods can at best have ameliorative effects, there can hardly be any long-term solution unless the vulnerable sections have some degree of control over the country's resources.

Thanks to the global information revolution, who the food insecure are and where they are located is no longer an enigma. However, the schism between developing countries and developed nations continues. Even within them, the poor get poorer and are affected in the worst form in any economic slowdown. Added to this is the dimension of civil wars, not necessarily created from within a country. Hence any talk of political will on the part of nations when any such global commitment is missing, will only amount to platitudes sans praxis, confined to analyses and introspection in rarefied conclaves. Now, one can only hope that the FAO findings and assessments by other U.N. organisations are taken seriously.

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