Hunger and Food Waste in a World of Plenty

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. And 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. Woman, who in many countries are not allowed to own land, make up 60% of the global total; if they were given equal access to resources the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that “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 – poor self-esteem, personal shame and embarrassment – flow from this basic underlying, and decidedly crude form of poverty. And whilst poverty affects everyone no matter 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 UNICEF, “more than 30% of children – about 600 million – live on less than US $1 a day [The World Bank poverty line is $1.90 a day].” Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year, 90% of whom are the victims of long-term malnourishment – rather than emergency famine. And for those who survive early childhood, hunger leaves a lifelong legacy of cognitive and physical impairment.

Although the vast majority (98%) 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% of the population) are in America – 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% 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 crucially ending food waste. According to the United Nations Development Programme, “up to 40% 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 $7 trillions.

Starving in a world of plenty

Worldwide hunger is not the result of population or 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 on its deathbed that has labelled everything a commodity – including food, shelter, health care, 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% of global wealth, while the richest 10% own 86% of all wealth: “the top 1% account for 46% of the total”! And unless the current trend of rising inequality is checked, Oxfam forecasts that, “the combined wealth of the richest 1 percent will overtake that of the other 99 percent of people next year.”

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

It is time, Oxfam states, 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 amongst 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 multi-national corporations), particularly women. WFP 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 – this has a combined effect: it addresses hunger as well as keeping children in school, and so helps families break the cycle of poverty that leads to hunger.

Technology also has a part to play. The WFP 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.” 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 UN 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 amongst 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 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, which would all 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 re-appraisal 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, skills etc. A just, humane model as advocated by the Brandt Commission (report North-South: A Programme for Survival) that honors our collective commitment to Article 25 of the UNDHR and holds, as its primary aim, the meeting of humanity’s basic needs – food, shelter, health care and education, and which is not 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.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.