Global Hunger: The News is both Good and Bad

Stephen DeAngelis

August 16, 2011

Unless you don’t follow the news at all, you are aware that the Horn of Africa is once again struggling with famine and hunger. “The United Nations has declared a famine in parts of rebel-held southern Somalia, the worst in nearly 20 years.” [“UN declares famine in rebel-held Somalia,” by Katrina Manson, Financial Times, 20 July 2011] Manson reports:

“11.5m people are severely affected by a drought across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, but this is the first time the resulting food shortage has been declared a famine. … Malnutrition rates in southern Somalia are the highest in [the] world, surpassing 50 per cent in some areas, with deaths at six per 10,000 a day, easily meeting the requirements to declare it technically a famine, Mr Bowden said. The term famine describes a situation where acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 per cent, more than two people per 10,000 die a day and people are not able to access food and other basic necessities.”

Since Somalia remains the poster child of failed states, desperate people looking for assistance are fleeing in large numbers to Kenya and Ethiopia. According to Manson, “The UN says 3.2m Somalis are in urgent need of lifesaving assistance in the country, with 2.8m of those in southern Somalia.” With Islamic extremists controlling areas containing nearly 80 percent of the at-risk children, and with funding in short supply, conditions in the Horn are not good. Interestingly, Manson writes, “Market failure rather than lack of food is to blame.” She explains:

“[Mark Bowden, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia], attributes the crisis in part to a collapse in the terms of trade, saying annual inflation at 270 per cent means food importers have no incentive to bring in food.”

Drought has wiped out crops and herds, but the lack of available food can be directly tied to Somalia’s failed state status. A Financial Times editorial declared, “Somalia is a humanitarian disaster at the best of times.” These are not the best of times. In another article concerning the drought and famine, Manson reports that neighboring Kenyan is also having a difficult time dealing with the crisis. She reports that the drought is the worst in 60 years and little is being done to address long-term consequences. She writes:

“The real reason for the food crisis, say analysts and residents, is structural: repeated failed and poor rains and long-term poor management of water, land and markets have become a fact of life. Even before this year’s drought, half the people in Isiolo received food relief. That figure has now increased to 75 per cent and is set to rise further.” [“Kenya fails to manage its food crisis,” Financial Times, 31 July 2011]

The fact that Horn of Africa governments (or lack of government) have proven incapable of dealing with the crisis does not excuse the rest of the world from providing urgently needed help. It does underscore how important good governance is as a foundation for building a sound economy. Even before famine was declared in the East Africa, the global food sector was experiencing rising prices and increasing the numbers of people experiencing hunger. Back in February, The Economist asked, “What is causing food prices to soar and what can be done about it?” [“Crisis prevention,” 24 February 2011] The article states:

“Around the world, the food system is in crisis. Prices have rocketed; they are now higher in real terms than at any time since 1984. They could rise further still if drought lays waste to China’s wheat harvest, as is feared. Food has played some role (how large is hard to tell) in the uprisings in the Middle East. High prices are adding millions to the number who go to bed hungry each night. This is the second price spike in less than four years. Companies are sounding the alarm and the G20 grouping of the world’s largest economies has put ‘food security’ top of its 2011 to-do list. This attention is welcome. But today’s spike is only part of a broader set of worries. As countries focus on food, they need to distinguish between three classes of problem: structural, temporary and irrelevant. Unfortunately, policymakers have so far paid too much attention to the last of these and not enough to the first.”

As Manson noted earlier, structural problems have deepened the crisis in East Africa. The article in The Economist goes on to describe some of the factors that contributed to rising food prices (including weather, speculation, and changing eating habits). It continues:

“A good guess is that food production will have to rise by 70% by 2050 to keep pace with population growth, the explosion of developing countries’ megacities and the changes in diet that wealth and urbanisation bring. Big increases will be harder to achieve than in the past because there is little unfarmed land to bring into production, no more water and, in some places, little to be gained by heaping on more fertiliser. Climate change may well exacerbate these problems. For the first time since the 1960s the yields of the world’s most important crops, wheat and rice, are rising more slowly than the global population.”

Since that article was written, the UN has adjusted its demographic predictions (which earlier had the global population leveling at 9 billion near mid-century) and now forecasts that the global population will continue to rise to 10+ billion through the end of the century. The article claims that “the world cannot feed today’s 7 billion people properly.” It then rhetorically asks, “How on earth can it feed the expected 9 billion in 2050?” The answer it offers is “high prices.” It explains:

“If 9 billion people are to be fed in 2050, countries that produce a miserable one tonne per hectare will have to produce two; the vast amount of food wasted on poor countries’ farms—a third or more of the total—must be saved; and plant breeders will have to reverse the long decline in yield growth. All these things require higher returns to farmers, which will attract higher investment. Without these, there will not just be a billion hungry people (the equivalent of India) but 2 billion extra (two Indias) in 2050. Somehow, returns to farmers must rise without inflicting untold misery on the poor.”

Despite how it may sound, The Economist is optimistic that it can be done. It will require good policies, good science, and a little bit of good luck. Mark Bittman asserts, “There are bright spots on our food landscape, hopeful trends, even movements, of which we can be proud.” [“Food: Six Things to Feel Good About,” New York Times, 22 March 2011] The first “hopeful trend” is that people are becoming better educated (and, thus, more empowered) when it comes to food and nutrition. Bittman writes:

“• Not just awareness, but power — Everyone talks about food policy, but as advocates of change become more politically potent we’re finally seeing more done about it. … Combined with increasingly empowered consumers and a burgeoning food movement (one that Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh suggests has the potential to surpass and save the environmental movement), guarded optimism is called for, especially with the farm bill up for renewal in 2012. If the good guys fail to make some real gains there I’ll be surprised.”

Bittman’s next trend involves the food supply chain. He writes:

“• Moving beyond greenwashing — [Wal-Mart’s] … plan to re-regionalize its food distribution network, which is … significant. The world’s biggest retailer pledged to ‘double sales of locally sourced produce,’ reduce in-store food waste, work with farmers on crop selection and sustainable practices, and encourage — or is that ‘force’? — suppliers to reconfigure processed foods into ‘healthier’ forms. … McDonald’s made a ‘Sustainable Land Management Commitment.’ We can and should be skeptical of these pronouncements, but the heat that inspired these two giants to promise change may ensure that they follow through.”

According to Miguel Bustillo and David Kesmodel, Wal-Mart and other supermarket chains are following through on the “buy local” movement. [“‘Local’ Grows on Wal-Mart,” Wall Street Journal, 1 August 2011] Bittman’s next positive trend to celebrate is a new appreciation for “real food.” He writes:

“• Real food is spreading — There are now more than 6,000 farmers markets nationwide — about a 250 percent increase since 1994 (significant: there are half as many as there are domestic McDonald’s), and 900 of them are open during the winte. … Furthermore, serious and increasing efforts are being made to get that food to the people who really need it: Wholesome Wave, for example, began a voucher program in 2008 that doubles the value of federal food stamps (SNAP) at participating farmers markets; that program has grown more than tenfold in less than three years.”

Bittman’s next trend — urban agriculture — is important because the world grows more urbanized every day. He writes:

“• We’re not just buying, we’re growing — Urban agriculture is on the rise. If you’re smirking, let me remind you that in 1943, 20 million households (three-fifths of the population at that point) grew more than 40 percent of all the vegetables we ate. City governments are catching on, changing zoning codes and policies to make them more ag-friendly, and even planting edible landscaping on city hall properties. Detroit, where the world’s largest urban farm is under development, has warmly and enthusiastically embraced urban agriculture. Other cities, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia (more on Philly in a week or two), New York, Toronto, Seattle, Syracuse, Milwaukee and many more, have begun efforts to cultivate urban farming movements. And if local food, grown ethically, can become more popular and widespread, and can help in the greening of cities — well, what’s wrong with that?”

You don’t necessarily need vacant plots for urban agriculture — rooftops will do. Urban greenhouses are also making inroads in cities like New York. I’m not sure Bittman’s next topic is actually a “trend” right now. I think it’s more of a hope.

“• Farming is becoming hip — The number of farms is at last increasing, although it’s no secret that farmers are an endangered species: the average age of the principal operator on farms in the United States is 57. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently noted that our farmers are ‘aging at a rapid rate,’ and when he asked, ‘Who’s going to replace those folks?’ it wasn’t a rhetorical question. But efforts by nonprofits like the eagerly awaited FoodCorps and The Greenhorns, both of which aim to introduce farming to a new generation of young people, are giving farming a new cachet of cool. Meanwhile, the Nebraska-based Land Link program matches beginning farmers and ranchers with retirees so that the newbies gain the skills (and land) they need.”

Emerging market countries are going find that more and more young people leave the farm for the city as their economies heat up. To replace those lost workers, agriculture is going to have become more mechanized. Even in developing countries whose economies rely more on agriculture rather than industry, better farming methods are going to be required in the years ahead. Bittman’s final positive trend involves better lunches being provided in American schools. Providing children with nutritious meals is just as (if not more) important in emerging market and developing countries. Robert Jensen, an associate professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Nolan Miller, a professor of finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, point out that it is not a straightforward matter deciding who is underfed and who is not. [“A Taste Test for Hunger,” New York Times, 9 July 2011] They write:

“Consider this paradox: according to conventional wisdom, hunger is supposed to decline as a country’s wealth increases. Yet in China and India, hunger appears to be growing even as incomes increase at phenomenal rates. There are a few possible explanations: unequal distribution of wealth, inefficient or indifferent governments and aid agencies, and recent increases in world food prices. While these factors may play a role, at least part of the answer may be much simpler: we are measuring hunger incorrectly. Suppose you want to figure out if someone has enough to eat. The standard approach is to compare the number of calories eaten to the number needed, with ‘need’ defined by a statistical average across a population. In effect, policy makers tell people whether they are hungry based on whether the amount of calories they take in conforms to some externally imposed standard. Of course, very few people actually conform to a statistical average. So what if, instead, you looked not just at how many calories people consumed, but at the food they chose to eat?”

Jensen and Miller recommend using a method they call the “staple calorie share.” They explain:

“We measure how many calories people get from these low-cost foods and how much they get from more expensive foods like meat. The greater the share of calories they receive from the former, the hungrier they are. The rationale behind this approach is straightforward. We are all familiar with the unpleasant sensations associated with hunger. These are the body’s way of telling us that we need more calories. Once those needs are largely met, people will switch to more flavorful, but more expensive, foods. … With the standard approach, you need to know how many calories the person has taken in and how many the person needs. But that need varies widely based on age, sex, activity level and dozens of other factors. Though some of the factors affecting calorie needs are measurable, many are not. Moreover, it’s hard to know how many calories a person is actually getting, since health factors, including the widespread incidence of diarrhea, often mean that only a fraction of calories eaten are absorbed by the body. The staple-calorie-share approach eliminates both problems. Your choice of foods reveals whether you have enough calories. Staple-calorie-share ‘need’ is less variable across people; though one person may need more calories than another, they will both begin to switch away from staple foods when their needs are met. And your body isn’t fooled by how many calories you put into your mouth; the physical sensation of hunger is regulated by the amount of calories you actually absorb.”

If you accept Jensen’s and Miller’s logic and method, they have some good news to share — there may be fewer hungry people in growth countries (like China) than now believed. They explain:

“The standard approach reveals that in China, the fraction of people consuming fewer than 2,100 calories increased to 67 percent from 53 percent between 1991 and 2001. However, the fraction who appeared hungry, as measured by staple-calorie share (using a threshold of 80 percent of calories consumed through staples), declined to 32 percent from 49 percent. Thus, instead of 150 million more hungry people in China, there were actually almost 200 million fewer. Rising incomes have indeed made people better off; however, they have used their increased purchasing power to buy better-tasting foods, and nonfood items, rather than to increase calories.”

Professors Jensen and Miller aren’t trying to downplay the seriousness of global hunger. They write, “No matter how you measure it, hundreds of millions of people around the world aren’t getting enough to eat.” Their point is that better measurements allow for better management. They conclude:

“Aid money is a scarce resource, and policy makers have to decide whether it is best spent on food aid or other forms of vital assistance, like health care. Adopting a more nuanced and accurate measurement of hunger would be a big help in making those lifesaving decisions.”

With budget deficits now plaguing much of the developed world, resource decisions are not going to get any easier and increased foreign aid is unlikely. While governments may turn a blind eye to food crises around the globe, individuals and charities will not. They, too, need a better way to assess real need so that they can make informed decisions about how best to help in time of need. I applaud the good professors for their efforts.