Sharing and ending food waste – the keys to ridding the world of hunger

World hunger
By Graham Peebles

Food, like shelter and health care, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fundamental right of all people, irrespective of circumstances or income. Yet, one in nine of the global population does not have enough to eat, despite the fact that there is enough food to feed everyone.

The fact that around 800 million people are literally starving to death in a world of plenty is a level of human injustice which beggars belief. Women and children are the worst affected. Women, who in many countries are not allowed to own land, make up 60 per cent of the global total. The World Food Programme estimates that if they were given equal access to resources, “the number of hungry in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million people”.

The causes of hunger are not complicated. While the rich indulge to excess, and fill to overflowing, people are allowed to die of hunger-related illnesses simply because they don’t have enough money to buy food. This needless human destruction is not simply unjust, it is atrociously immoral and should fill us all with shame. As a wise man has said, “my brothers how can you watch these people die before your eyes and call yourselves men?”

The poorest of the poor

People starve and live with “food insecurity” for one fundamental reason: poverty.

Poverty is not simply defined by a lack of income, but virtually all other types of poverty, including poor health care, poor education, poor nutrition, as well as the more psychological effects – lack of self-esteem, personal shame and embarrassment – flow from this basic underlying, and decidedly crude, form of poverty. And while poverty affects everyone irrespective of age, the impact on children is devastating, making them vulnerable to all manner of exploitation, threatening their safety, rights, health and education.

In developing countries, according to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), “more than 30 per cent of children – about 600 million – live on less than USD 1 a day [the World Bank poverty line is USD 1.90 a day]”. Poor nutrition, rather than emergency famine, causes nearly half (45 per cent ) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year, 90 per cent of whom are the victims of long-term malnourishment. And for those who survive early childhood, hunger leaves a lifelong legacy of cognitive and physical impairment.

Although the vast majority (98 per cent) of those living with acute food insecurity are found in “developing” – i.e. poor – countries, perhaps surprisingly an additional 50 million people or so (14 per cent of the population) are in the United States,  supposedly the world’s richest nation, but significantly also the country with the highest levels of wealth and income inequality in the world.

Sub-Saharan Africa (where 25 per cent of children are malnourished) accounts for 214 million people living with food insecurity, but the greatest concentration of starving human beings (525 million), according to figures from The Hunger Project, lives in Asia. Inevitably, given its population (1.3 billion), the largest proportion is in India (over 200 million), where the causes of hunger are pretty much the same as everywhere else in the world: high levels of poverty, inequality, rising food costs, inflation and poor governance. We could add to this list lack of sharing, or distribution of foodstuffs to those in need, and food waste. According to the United Nations Development Programme, “up to 40 per cent of the food produced in India is wasted”, 21 million tonnes of wheat alone.

India ranks 80th out of 104 countries in the Global Hunger Index and is home to a third of the world’s poor and hungry. Approximately one in three Indian children are malnourished, and some 3,000 die every day from diet-related illnesses. This in what is regularly hailed as the world’s fastest growing economy, where according to Forbes, 111 billionaires and almost 200,000 millionaires live. The same absurdity – of extraordinary insular wealth, excess and greed alongside desperate poverty and crippling suffering – is repeated globally. Oxfam states that the annual “income of the world’s richest 100 people is enough to end global poverty four times over” – worldwide there are 1,826 billionaires, with a combined wealth in excess of USD 7 trillions.

Starving in a world of plenty

Worldwide hunger is not the result of population of lack of food. As Oxfam states “it’s about power, and its roots lie in inequalities in access to resources and opportunities”, as well as financial inequality and the economic injustice that feeds poverty. There is roughly the same number of overweight or obese people in the world as the number suffering from hunger. This highlights what many see as one of the underlying causes of hunger: grotesque levels of inequality, within nations and between countries.

Inequality results from a fundamentally corrupt economic system. In fact, it is inherent in the system itself, a system that has labelled everything a commodity – including food, shelter, health care and education – to be profited from until exhausted – and everyone a consumer to be exploited into penury then discarded. It is a system that drives compassion and the natural human qualities of sharing and empathy into the shadows; it devalues community and champions individual success, no matter the cost to other people or the environment. It says you can feed yourself and your family only if you have money to do so; if not we will sit in comfort and complacency and watch you and your children die.

The chasm between the rich and the rest is greater today than ever. The statistics are staggering. Currently the richest 85 people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion; the lower half of the global population possesses just 1 per cent of global wealth, while the richest 10 per cent own 86 per cent of all wealth. “The top 1 per cent account for 46 per cent of the total.” Unless the current trend of rising inequality is checked, Oxfam forecasts that “the combined wealth of the richest 1 per cent will overtake that of the other 99 per cent of people next year”.

To redress the growing division between the grossly rich and the desperately poor, the charity is calling for what it describes as a “global new deal” in order to “reverse decades of increasing inequality”. It consists of a radical programme to deal with everything from closing tax havens, which “hold as much as USD 32 trillion, or a third of all global wealth”, to dealing with weak employment laws and investing in – not cutting – public services.

It is time, Oxfam says, that “our leaders reformed the system so that it works in the interests of the whole of humanity rather than a global elite”. This means designing a just model with sharing at its heart so that the resources of the world, including food and water, are shared equitably among the people of the world.

Creative solutions to end hunger and food waste

There are various basic measures that have been shown to cut hunger sharply: Encouraging and investing in smallholder farmers (instead of selling off their land to multinational corporations), particularly women. World Food Programme findings show that high rates of hunger are strongly linked to gender inequalities. “When women are supported, whether as farmers or as food providers, families eat,” and when mothers receive education on good feeding techniques and getting the right nutrients, child malnutrition is reduced. Providing school meals has the combined effect of addressing hunger and keeping children in school, thus helping families break the cycle of poverty that leads to hunger.

Technology also has a part to play. The World Food Programme reports that “in Syria, the refugees from Iraq get a voucher on a cell phone to spend in a local store. The storekeepers love it. The farmers love it. It saves money.” This is a brilliant scheme that does away with money, as does “Food for Assets”, a project that offers food in payment for work to poor, hungry communities, including smallholder farmers. Add to this list raising the minimum wage of the lowest paid workers and, importantly, ending food wastage.

Globally, around a third of all food produced (1.3 billion tonnes) is wasted; in America the figure jumps to half. In addition to wasting food, all the resources needed to grow and distribute it are also squandered, the key ones being energy and, crucially, water: the United Nations informs us that “250 km3 of water is wasted in growing these [wasted] crops, an amount that would meet all the world’s water needs”. Complacency among those of us in the West where there is an abundance of food is a major factor: with masses of food in the shops we don’t need to be careful with it, is the common attitude.

There are a number of common-sense recommendations for reducing food wastage, all of which are easy to implement: invest in food storage technology, so that food keeps for longer; force supermarkets to stock and sell imperfect vegetables (meaning naturally, not corporately, shaped) at lower prices; donate food to those in need and revise the over-zealous sell-by-dates. Redistributing – sharing unwanted food rather than wasting it – would help eliminate hunger. Duncan Green, Oxfam UK’s senior strategic adviser, states in The Guardian that on some estimates, “stopping the waste of food after harvest due to poor storage or transport infrastructure, and then in our own kitchens, could free up half of all food grown”.

An economy based on sharing

Over and above these positive steps, all of which would contribute to reducing hunger, ending hunger totally is inextricably linked to abolishing the extreme levels of poverty that half the planet lives with.

This requires a creative reappraisal of the economic system and a collective will to bring about real and lasting change. The current heartless market-driven structure makes no concession to need and is conditioned totally by money; as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states “even when enough [food] is produced… there is no guarantee that a market economy will generate a distribution of income that provides enough for all to purchase the food needed”.

The fact that food is burnt, or left for rats to feast on, because it’s cheaper to destroy the produce than distribute it to those in need reveals the inhumane nature of the economic rules that fuel such shameful neglect. Sharing, imaginatively utilised, is the fundamental and common-sense element that would end hunger and acute poverty, and quickly. The fact “that hunger exists at all shows the urgency of redistributing income and assets to achieve a fairer world”, says Duncan Green. “That redistribution has not already taken place is truly something to be ashamed of.”

It is time to design an economic system that allows for the required sharing of food, water, land and other natural resources, as well as knowledge and skills. This must be a  just and humane model, as advocated by the Brandt Commission, that honours our collective commitment to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and holds, as its primary aim, the meeting of humanity’s basic needs: food, shelter, health care and education. And it must not be driven by corporate profit, greed and the obscene accumulation of personal wealth, which is fuelling inequality and causing the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world.

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