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Agriculture

The global food surplus

The UN aimed to cut global hunger in half from 2000 to 2015, but today even more people are starving than at the beginning of the millenium.

Women and children in Somalia line up for food

An estimated one billion people are living in hunger

Starvation is a gruesome way to die. A starving person's physical state worsens in stages; when the immune system collapses death slowly sets in, usually accompanied by unbearable pain.

And yet it's not uncommon. Nearly 25,000 people starve to death every day, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

At the UN's Millennium Summit in 2000, the UN General Assembly set a goal of halving the number of starving people around the world living in hunger - then estimated at 800 million - by 2015. They also sought to cut world poverty figures in half within the same time period, with intervention on the part of the FAO ensuring that the resolution included a statement about the causal interrelationship between hunger and poverty.

Four years before the resolution's deadline, the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) has expressed cautious optimism about the progress that's been made in combating world poverty. According to a recent DESA report, poverty has sunk worldwide by 40 percent since 1990.

children and their parents in Zimbabwe pick corn kernels spilled on the roadside by trucks

Picking up kernels of spilled corn on a roadside in Zimbabwe

Yet the number of people living in hunger has risen to one billion, which is the highest it's been since World War II, according to VENRO, the umbrella group of German non-governmental organizations dealing with development issues.

The problem is not that there is too little food to go around. In fact, the figures have nothing to do with global food supply, according to Michael Windfuhr of the German Institute for Human Rights. "We've seen a global surplus for over five decades now," Windfuhr told Deutsche Welle. While 15 percent of the global population faces hunger, another 20 percent are overweight, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Neglecting agricultural development

Statistical successes seen in the fight against poverty are largely due to advances in China. Meanwhile, the situation in southern Asia and in large parts of Africa remains unchanged.

"The neglect of agricultural development is one of the main reasons why nothing is changing," says Windfuhr. "In the affected countries there's no agrarian counseling, no credit, no secure land deeds, barely any infrastructure and no agricultural research."

Up through the 1980s, Windfuhr says, some 20 percent of international development aid was spent on agricultural development. Then the proportion dropped: "down to three to four percent by 2005, by all donors, even the World Bank," Windfuhr says.

Even countries affected by famine and poverty invest very little in agrarian development. "It has a lot to do with the fact that food is mostly produced by women, who in many countries face double discrimination," says Windfuhr. "In particular, poor demographic groups generally receive very little political attention."

Private investment not the answer

For quite some time, investment in agriculture has essentially come from the private sector; since the global financial crisis began, agriculture has been an area of interest for wealthy private investors and institutions. Many have put funds into land, fertilizer, seeds and agricultural endowment funds.

Coffee trees

Developing countries have been encouraged to produce export goods, like coffee

But Windfuhr does not see this type of large scale, commercial investment as a positive development.

"If we buy up large swathes of land and drive away small-scale farmers, maybe it will lead to more food production, but then we'll also have more famine," he says. On the contrary, he believes that investment in agrarian regions must improve the living conditions of the poor and the hungry.

VENRO chairman Ulrich Post takes issue in particular with the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that have "conned many developing countries into importing food." He says that international lending has gone to export sectors such as flowers, cocoa and coffee, while food surpluses from the United States and the European Union are being imported.

Delicate balance

It's a vicious circle: Imports of cheap surplus food from the West have destroyed local markets in Asia and Africa, removing financial incentives to plant food, and taking away the income of the poor.

Post says World Bank intervention in one country can tip the balance in other countries: "Vietnam has turned itself into one of the world's largest coffee producers, following the advice of the World Bank. That has, of course, caused global coffee prices to drop, hurting Latin American coffee farmers."

Experts now agree that large plantations and industrial agriculture do not help to stop hunger, but instead create new problems. Monoculture and fertilizers, for instance, have damaged natural diversity, while leaching the soil of its nutrients.

"Soil is the most neglected resource there is," says Joachim von Braun, director of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn.

Fueling hunger

These days, a large amount of the world's arable land is being farmed to produce not just food, but fuel. Corn and sugar cane raised in underdeveloped countries are destined to become low-carbon-emission biofuel at the behest of the global North.

A young girl eating BP-100 Food supplement in Giarra Clinic in Southern Ethiopia

Experts say there must be real change as the world population continues to boom

"A real competition has come about between food and fuel [production]," according to Swiss development expert Hans Herren.

With only four years to go, Herren does not believe the world can reach the UN's Millennium Development Goals without fundamental change. "We cannot solve the problems with today's industrial line of thought," he says.

Experts say that both governmental and private agents must take more account of human rights when it comes to agriculture. For Windfuhr it boils down to one question: "What regulations do we have to set for global agricultural production so that we can feed nine billion people in the long term?"

Author: Ulrike Mast-Kirschning / dl
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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