One in every six people on the planet suffers from hunger. Think about that figure, 17 percent of the world. Two weeks ago the United Nations World Food Programme reported that more than one billion people go hungry every day, more than any other time in history.
Where are these hungry folks? About 642 million live in Asia and the Pacific Rim; 265 million live in sub-Saharan Africa; 95 million come from Latin America, the Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa, and the remaining 15 million live in developed countries. In other words, they’re everywhere; some of them may be your neighbors.
The U.N. reports that hunger spiked when the world economy plunged, and governments started pumping money into the financial sector. Essentially, saving banks left people to starve because those efforts took funds away from food aid and distribution.
Beyond the worldwide response to the crashing financial market, there is a deeper reason hunger has become so prevalent: the disappearance of local food systems in favor of exports. Before World War II, the bulk of a country’s food was grown domestically. Yes, there were some imports and exports, but not at nearly the level we experience now. A country imported what they couldn’t grow; now countries import food that they can grow. They must import food because they have agreed to export so much of their own food items. Wouldn’t it be less complicated if we just ate what we grew in the first place? Yes, but then all those poor trade representatives and USDA negotiators would be out of a job, boo hoo. Of course, it might help feed these billion hungry people.
A case in point is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was passed in 1994. This agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico was to usher in a brave new world of prosperity, which it did, for multinational food processors like Archers Daniel Midland (ADM), Cargill and ConAgra. Actual farmers didn’t fare so well; in fact, they started disappearing. Over one million Mexican subsistence farmers were forced from their land during NAFTA’s first 10 years. These were folks who were raising their own food, and then forced from sufficiency to factory jobs in border towns. Vanishing farmers equal vanishing food.
Why did they lose their farms? Mexico is the birthplace of corn, and many of those farmers raised corn for their families and sold their surplus. NAFTA forced Mexico to import corn and corn products (like high fructose corn syrup) and the price of corn plummeted. They grew corn, yet had to import it due to the agreement. End result: broke, displaced, hungry farmers.
The small African coutnry of Djibouti is another example of fairly stable, developing country that had been pretty well able to feed its people, until its government bought into the global export model. Farmers were told to stop growing their own food and start growing tulips for export, so they did. Not enough food could be imported to replace what had grown there, and many areas of the country were too remote for efficient food distribution.
If we are ever to end world hunger, it must start at home. Growing some of our own food and buying more from our neighbors or within our region will eventually return our food system to a saner model. How we spend our money at the grocery store also matters. Feeling virtuous about spending $20 at the farmers market and then heading to Wal-Mart for the rest of our groceries is rather hypocritcal. For food items not grown in your area, like coffee or tea, vote with your food dollars by purchasing fair-trade certified foods. This process ensures that more money goes to the actual farmers, not middlemen, and enables them to sustain their families.
We don’t need more efficiency, pesticides, genetically modified foods, or analysts to decrease the number of hungry people. We need to take the raising of food out of the boardrooms of Wall Street and back into the hands of farmers worldwide.