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There’s Enough Food, But Not Enough Political Will

January 8, 2014

usfarmThere’s an interesting paradox in food and hunger policy in the United States and around the world. Policy generally begins from the assumption that to address the problem of hunger around the world, we need to increase production. Thus we tend to focus on deploying new technologies to expand production. But while increased production may certainly be useful, it’s important to remember that the crux of the hunger problem in the world centers not on the availability of food, but on the ability of people to access the food that is available. This is the important distinction that Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen highlights in his entitlement theory. But it’s one that we usually forget once we start talking programmatic initiatives.

Food First’s Executive Director Eric Holt-Gimenez notes that the world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people—about one and one-half times the number of people currently on the planet, and the population peak most demographers expect we’ll hit around 2050. The reason we have hunger, then, isn’t because there are too many people, but because too many people—particularly those resource-poor farmers living on less than $2 per day—can’t afford to purchase this food.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the United States, the world’s largest food exporter. In 2010, the United States exported more than $122 billion in bulk commodity crops alone, accounting for 17 percent of all global exports. While some of this food feeds consumers in other countries, much is destined for transformation into biofuels or as feed crops for cattle, pigs, and other livestock.  An estimated 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted globally every year. At the same time, one in six people in the United States—millions of Americans—go hungry.

Expanding food production will thus do little to address the problem of hunger globally or in the United States. Talking about increasing food production is part of a long tradition of offering technical solutions to social problems. The more difficult challenges—reducing poverty and inequality, ensuring access to food, and enabling communities to address the problems they face—are political and social in nature. These require a political will that simply talking about increasing total output doesn’t. And given the current level of dysfunction in Washington DC, it seems unlikely that anything resembling President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty will come about in the near future. This doesn’t mean it’s not important to push for broader social and political changes, only that it’s going to be a long, hard fight.

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  1. claireemulholland permalink

    Just wanted to say that this article inspired me to write a post on the cultural implications of poverty on hunger. Thanks for your great piece – I love this blog.

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