PANNA: The Myths About World Hunger


Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)

The Myths About World Hunger

November 16, 1998

The world produces enough grain to provide every human being on the planet with thirty-five hundred calories a day, according to a new book by the Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First). This estimate does not take into account many other commonly eaten foods, such as vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats and fish. When all foods are considered together, there is enough to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day.

Hunger persists despite the fact that increases in food production during the past 35 years have outstripped the world’s population growth by about 16%. Worldwide, an estimated 786 million people have inadequate access to food. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 30 million people cannot afford a healthy diet.

According to “World Hunger: Twelve Myths,” powerful misconceptions block our understanding of the true causes of hunger and thus prevent us from taking effective action. “The true source of world hunger is not scarcity but policy; not inevitability but politics,” said Dr. Peter Rosset, Executive Director of Food First and co-author of the book. “The real culprits are economies that fail to offer everyone opportunities and societies that place economic efficiency over compassion.”

First published in the early 1970s, this updated edition takes into account multiple changes in the world that have occurred since that time — such as the end of the Cold War, rising hunger in the U.S. and economic globalization. The information revolution and explosion of new and advanced technologies have not solved world hunger, in large part because national and global food systems today are increasingly controlled by a few powerful corporate interests. These corporations control availability and cost of food while the world’s millions of poor are increasingly barred from political decision making on issues related to production, access and distribution of food.

Many of the countries in which hunger is rampant export more agricultural goods than they import. For example, India ranks near the top among Third World agricultural exporters. In 1995, while at least 200 million Indians went hungry, India exported US$625 million worth of wheat and flour and US$1.3 billion worth of rice, the two staples of the Indian diet. In addition, the American Association for the Advancement of Science found in a 1997 study that 78% of all malnourished children under five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses.

Although rapid population growth remains a serious concern in many countries, the Food First book states that nowhere does population density explain hunger. Like hunger itself, rapid population growth results from underlying inequities that deprive people, especially poor women, of economic opportunity and security. Rapid population growth and hunger are endemic to societies where land ownership, jobs, education, health care and old age security are beyond the reach of most people. Those Third World societies with dramatically successful reductions of population growth rates — China, Colombia, Cuba, Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Kerala — prove that the lives of the poor, especially poor women, must improve before they can choose to have fewer children.

“World Hunger: Twelve Myths” brings together evidence to support the case that with different policies in place, the world could feed itself. For example, large, industrial farms are not necessarily the most efficient and productive way to grow food. A study of 15 countries (primarily in Asia and Africa) found that per-acre output on small farms can be four to five times higher than that on large estates. Even comparing output only on actually cultivated land, small farms are still significantly more productive. In Japan, the government carried out major land reform after World War II, transforming tenant-farmers into owner-cultivators. Today, Japanese cereal yield per acre is one of the highest in the world, and these small farmers have achieved middle-class standards of living.

“Hunger is caused by decisions made by human beings and can be ended by making different decisions. To be part of the answer to world hunger means letting go of old frameworks and grappling with new ideas and approaches,” said Rosset. “This will enable us to stop twisting our values so that economic dogma might remain intact while millions of fellow human beings starve amid ever greater abundance.”

“World Hunger: Twelve Myths, Second Edition” by Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset with Luis Esparza is available from Food First for US$13 plus $4.50 shipping.

Source/contact: Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 398 60th Street, Oakland, CA 94618; phone (510) 654-4400; email:; Web site:



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