More than one billion people across the globe — mostly women and children — go to bed hungry more often than not. But this wide-scale human suffering is not due to a scarcity of food. Those that are hungry simply can’t afford to eat, despite the fact that there is more than enough to go around.
The problem is a serious one. Around the world, nearly 16,000 children die from a hunger-related causes every day — one child every five seconds.
Why people are hungry
As a society, we support policies and human-made "institutions"— market structures, trade and aid rules, public research agendas and farm policies — that determine how our natural resources are put to use in providing for humanity.
People are hungry because the "global food system" we've built prioritizes corporate profits, while failing to either feed people or steward our land and water resources for future generations. This is true whether we live in Detroit or Denver, in Delhi or Dakar.
Growing fuel & feed
The truth is, our current food system feeds more grain to cars and cattle than to people.
- Ethanol: In 2011, 27% of U.S. grain crops were fed to cars. More than five billion bushels of corn went to U.S. ethanol distilleries that year.
- Corn-fed cattle: Also in 2011, China used approximately 70% of its total corn production for livestock feed, 20% for industrial use and only 5% for food.
But driving less and eating less meat won't feed the hungry. While consumer choices can certainly create change — and the concept of a “sustainable diet” is making inroads with U.S. policymakers — consumers are not the driving force behind a system that feeds cars and cattle while more humans than ever go hungry.
How did we get here? Today's broken food system reflects decades of short-sighted and misguided agricultural policies, trade and aid strategies, and corporate consolidation.
Crops gone missing
One of the greatest threats to food security today is the dramatic worldwide loss of crop diversity over the past 50 years.
When an international team of scientists examined food supply data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, they found that global expansion of a few staple cereal crops (wheat, rice and maize) and a corresponding drop in production of nutritionally important root crops and cereals (cassava, sorghum and millets) has re-shaped and homogenized the global diet.
The consequences? A global food system that is both less nourishing and less resilient.
So despite what Big Ag would have us believe, widespread, intensive production of a few commodity crops — many of them pesticide-promoting, genetically engineered varieties — is not the answer to global hunger. In fact, it’s a key contributor to the problem.
What if we prioritized feeding people?
While hunger is not a matter of scarcity, it's certainly worth noting that organic, small-scale farming can feed the world.
A comprehensive look at nearly 300 studies worldwide shows that organic agriculture could produce enough food to provide 2,640 to 4,380 calories per person per day — more than the suggested intake for healthy adults.
And when the UN convened hundreds of scientists from around the world — including PAN’s Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman — they concluded that small-scale, agroecological farming is one of the most promising paths toward a resilient, productive and sustainable agricultural future.
So just what would a food system geared towards eradicating hunger look like?
- Small-scale farmers around the world (who already feed most of humanity) would re-take control over the tools of their trade. Farmers, rather than corporations, would be in charge.
- Communities & responsive governments would be in charge of their own food and farming — rolling back decades of corporate capture and failed agricultural, trade and aid policies.
- Ecological resilience would become the guiding principle for farming.
In his final report as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter emphasized that the world’s food systems must be “radically and democratically redesigned” to ensure a world free from hunger. It’s called food democracy, and it's already happening all over the world.