Are the poor getting hungrier?

Wednesday May 25 2022
Kid poor

A boy eats at an orphanage run by a non-governmental organization on World Hunger Day, Chennai, May 28, 2014. PHOTO | REUTERS

By Jonathan Power

The world is whipping itself into a lather about the jump in world food prices. Just this last weekend the Minister of Agriculture of Egypt was saying that, without assured grain supplies from Russia and Ukraine, he expected a rise of widespread malnutrition.

As long ago as 1974, when grain prices had just quadrupled, all the nations of the world meeting at the World Food Conference in Rome promised that by the end of the century “no child would go to bed hungry”. After a steady increase in aid for agriculture for a number of years the momentum slowed. Likewise, in developing countries, the priority that agriculture was given seemed to fade away. The work of influencing and aiding the peasantry to increase production was so much harder than urban and industrial development that it slipped down the list of priorities. If what had been decided upon then - a “doable” list of goals, according to Henry Kissinger who was the US secretary of state - had been done there would be very little hunger today and poverty would have been severely reduced.

Still, that is only a half of it. We don’t measure hunger very well.

Periodically, because of one calamity or another- bad weather, oil price rises, a sharp increase in biofuels as happened in the US a decade ago or, as now, disturbing political events – the price of food rises. But – this is the important point – it is usually only wheat, maize, rice and soya beans whose prices are measured- the food that is traded.

The prices of fish, wild meat, cattle, cassava, yams, potatoes, the many kinds of beans, bananas and other vegetables are not measured and are little dependent on inputs from outside. Fertiliser can be useful. Unfortunately, prices are rising. (But if governments cut down on their military expenditure by 10 percent, fertiliser can be subsidised. In fact, that is the only new expenditure that needs to be made to preserve the status quo.) Goats need any old pasture. Chickens, pecking up bits and pieces of unused food and locally produced vegetable and grains, lay eggs. People even eat insects and snails (considered a delicacy in Nigeria, as in France). The fact is rice and wheat are usually the preserve of better-off people.

For decades we have assumed lower calories means more hunger. Poor Economics, a study by Abhijit Banarjee and Esther Duflo, Nobel Prize winners for Economics, turns much conventional thinking on nutrition on its head. Amartya Sen who also won the Nobel Prize for Economics was dead right when he wrote that it is “a marvellously insightful book”.

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“What if the poor are not eating too little food?” they write, “What if instead they are eating the wrong kinds of food? What if the poor aren’t starving but choosing to spend their money on other priorities?”

They look at India, “one of the great puzzles in the age of food crises”. According to government statistics Indians are eating less. Per capita calorie consumption has declined. Why? Incomes are not declining, quite the reverse.

It is not because of rising food prices. Between the early 1980s and 2005 food prices declined relative to the prices of other things. The percentage of people who said they don’t have enough food dropped dramatically from 17 percent in 1983 to 2 percent in 2004. In Delhi in real terms food prices have been declining since 2008.

We have to look at this problem of hunger more deeply. Diarrhoea is the scourge of poorer peoples. But it has been an easy problem to solve. The simple use of salt mixed with clean water can resuscitate even bad cases. Hence there is less “leaking” of the food people eat and therefore less calorie-rich foods are sufficient.

Yes, the war in Ukraine will hurt some people, not least the Ukrainian and Russian consumers themselves. Also, it will have a malign effect in high-income countries where grains are all-important. But the ordinary poor in the Third World will not suffer so much. Indeed, they might emerge from this food crisis better off than they were. The move towards imported grains has not been good for them.

A final word about the very poor. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, there are around 800 million people who every year go hungry on most days, and the number has been slowly rising since 2014, long before Covid and the Russian-Ukrainian war. Many of the above remedies can be applied to them, and governments have to push them forward. But much can’t because of a deteriorating climate, drought, flooding and, most significantly, civil war (most of these very poor live in war zones). These numbers are not improving, neither in Asia, nor in Africa, nor in current war zones, like Yemen, Syria and the Horn of Africa. Food aid is necessary.