The real hunger crisis

The recession-inspired spike in famine is just a symptom of a much deeper problem.

By Robert Paarlberg

When international food prices spiked a year ago, the World Bank announced that an additional 100 million people in the developing world would be pushed into poverty. Food prices have dropped at last -- down more than 40 percent from last year's peak. But now the World Bank has again upped its numbers, saying that 183 million poor are newly vulnerable to famine. Can rising prices and falling prices both cause more hunger?

The short answer is, yes -- because prices are not the only factor at work. Rising food prices directly caused the initial jump in hunger, but today's added spike is caused by a global slowdown in income growth, which will worsen hunger even if food prices fall. The shocks will be felt widely, and already, worries of food insecurity and famine are creeping back to the forefront of international attention, even making it into a forthcoming G-8 policy brief.

Fluctuations in the world's hungry population are important to monitor, but full-time specialists pay far more attention to the underlying fundamentals. They know that most of the hunger in the world is caused neither by high food prices nor slower economic growth. There were 850 million people chronically malnourished around the world in 2007, at a time when food prices were low and global growth was high. This is a permanent food crisis that is more than four times as large as the temporary spike that began last year.

The underlying crisis derives primarily from persistent rural poverty in Africa and South Asia. Ironically, most of the world's hungry people are farmers who produce food for a living. More than 60 percent of all Africans, for example, work in the countryside, growing crops and herding animals, and earning less than $1 a day. These farmers' crop yields are only about 20 percent as high as in Europe and the United States because they lack access to all the basic necessities for productive farming: improved seeds, fertilizer, water, electrical power, education, and rural roads to connect them to markets. Most of these farmers are women, two thirds are illiterate, and one third are malnourished. When food prices fall, these farmers can actually be hurt because agricultural products are what they have to sell.

The United States' favorite response to global hunger in recent years has been to give away its excess food. In response to the 2008 price spike, the U.S government spent an additional $1.4 billion to ship domestically produced food abroad as aid. This move was generous, but it offered no solution to the problem of low farm productivity. What's more, free food arriving from Iowa or Kansas can actually hurt farmers in Kenya or Ethiopia by reducing demand for their own market sales.

Getting off the food-aid treadmill requires larger investments in agricultural development in the world's most vulnerable places. But in recent years, the United States has neglected this imperative. Over the past three decades since 1980, per capita production of corn has fallen 14 percent in Africa and the number of malnourished people there doubled. During this same period, the United States cut its agricultural development assistance budget for Africa by 85 percent. The United States now spends 20 times as much on food aid to Africa as it spends on agricultural development to help Africans feed themselves.

Fixing this dysfunctional imbalance is the true key to ending hunger. The good news: Support is growing in the U.S. Congress for the Global Food Security Act of 2009, a measure introduced in January by Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Robert Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) that would authorize significantly larger U.S. investments in agricultural development, not just more food aid. At the G-20 meetings in London last week, U.S. President Barack Obama lent his White House endorsement to this approach, pledging to work with Congress to double U.S. financial support for agricultural development in poor countries to roughly $1 billion by 2010. This increase is still a modest budget number relative to the need, but it would represent a welcome change from recent policy trends. Addressing these agricultural fundamentals makes more sense than the current "food aid forever" strategy. There are millions hungry for such a change.

Robert Paarlberg is the B.F. Johnson professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept out of Africa.