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Do a billion people really go to bed hungry? Or is a television more important than food?

Foods of Khulungira: Fish stew, boiled maize, mixed beans, dried mushrooms, pumpkin leaves and egg stew

Foods of Khulungira Village, in central Malawi: Fish stew (nsomba zophika), boiled maize (chimanga chophika), mixed beans with salt and oil (nyemba zophika), dried mushrooms with groundnuts (bowa wofutsa), pumpkin leaves with pumpkin blossoms and potatoes (nkhwani wophatikiza ndi maungu anthete ndi kachewere wophika) and boiled eggs with tomato, onions, oil and salt (mazira ophika ndi phwetekere, anyezi, mafuta ndi mchere) (photo credit: CGIAR/Mann). Translations from Chichewa, Malawi’s national language; by Christopher Katema (ICRAF).

A provocative article appears in the current, special food, issue of Foreign Policy (May/June 2011), ‘More than 1 billion people are hungry in the world: But what if the experts are wrong,’ by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who run a ‘poverty lab’ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and are authors of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, from which this excerpt is adapted. Banerjee and Duflo attempt to unravel some of the complexities underlying bald statistics on world hunger that are rather casually tossed round aid and development circles. Excerpts from their Foreign Policy article/book follow.

‘For many in the West, poverty is almost synonymous with hunger. Indeed, the announcement by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2009 that more than 1 billion people are suffering from hunger grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did.

‘But is it really true? Are there really more than a billion people going to bed hungry each night? Our research on this question has taken us to rural villages and teeming urban slums around the world, collecting data and speaking with poor people about what they eat and what else they buy, from Morocco to Kenya, Indonesia to India. We’ve also tapped into a wealth of insights from our academic colleagues. What we’ve found is that the story of hunger, and of poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn’t necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice. . . .

‘In many countries, the definition of poverty itself has been connected to food; the thresholds for determining that someone was poor were originally calculated as the budget necessary to buy a certain number of calories, plus some other indispensable purchases, such as housing. A “poor” person has essentially been classified as someone without enough to eat.

‘So it is no surprise that government efforts to help the poor are largely based on the idea that the poor desperately need food and that quantity is what matters. Food subsidies are ubiquitous in the Middle East: Egypt spent $3.8 billion on food subsidies in the 2008 fiscal year, some 2 percent of its GDP. Indonesia distributes subsidized rice. Many states in India have a similar program. In the state of Orissa, for example, the poor are entitled to 55 pounds of rice a month at about 1 rupee per pound, less than 20 percent of the market price. Currently, the Indian Parliament is debating a Right to Food Act, which would allow people to sue the government if they are starving. Delivering such food aid is a logistical nightmare. In India it is estimated that more than half of the wheat and one-third of the rice gets “lost” along the way. To support direct food aid in this circumstance, one would have to be quite convinced that what the poor need more than anything is more grain.

‘But what if the poor are not, in general, eating too little food? What if, instead, they are eating the wrong kinds of food, depriving them of nutrients needed to be successful, healthy adults? What if the poor aren’t starving, but choosing to spend their money on other priorities? Development experts and policymakers would have to completely reimagine the way they think about hunger. And governments and aid agencies would need to stop pouring money into failed programs and focus instead on finding new ways to truly improve the lives of the world’s poorest. . . .

‘The poor seem to have many choices, and they don’t choose to spend as much as they can on food. Equally remarkable is that even the money that people do spend on food is not spent to maximize the intake of calories or micronutrients. Studies have shown that when very poor people get a chance to spend a little bit more on food, they don’t put everything into getting more calories. Instead, they buy better-tasting, more expensive calories. . . . [A]t least among these very poor urban households, getting more calories was not a priority: Getting better-tasting ones was.

‘All told, many poor people might eat fewer calories than we—or the FAO—think is appropriate. But this does not seem to be because they have no other choice; rather, they are not hungry enough to seize every opportunity to eat more. So perhaps there aren’t a billion “hungry” people in the world after all. . . .

‘Should we let it rest there, then? Can we assume that the poor, though they may be eating little, do eat as much as they need to?

‘That also does not seem plausible. While Indians may prefer to buy things other than food as they get richer, they and their children are certainly not well nourished by any objective standard. Anemia is rampant; body-mass indices are some of the lowest in the world; almost half of children under 5 are much too short for their age, and one-fifth are so skinny that they are considered to be “wasted.”

‘And this is not without consequences. There is a lot of evidence that children suffering from malnutrition generally grow into less successful adults. In Kenya, children who were given deworming pills in school for two years went to school longer and earned, as young adults, 20 percent more than children in comparable schools who received deworming for just one year. Worms contribute to anemia and general malnutrition, essentially because they compete with the child for nutrients. And the negative impact of undernutrition starts before birth. In Tanzania, to cite just one example, children born to mothers who received sufficient amounts of iodine during pregnancy completed between one-third and one-half of a year more schooling than their siblings who were in utero when their mothers weren’t being treated. It is a substantial increase, given that most of these children will complete only four or five years of schooling in total. In fact, the study concludes that if every mother took iodine capsules, there would be a 7.5 percent increase in the total educational attainment of children in Central and Southern Africa. This, in turn, could measurably affect lifetime productivity.

‘Better nutrition matters for adults, too. In another study, in Indonesia, researchers tested the effects of boosting people’s intake of iron, a key nutrient that prevents anemia. They found that iron supplements made men able to work harder and significantly boosted income. A year’s supply of iron-fortified fish sauce cost the equivalent of $6, and for a self-employed male, the yearly gain in earnings was nearly $40—an excellent investment.

‘If the gains are so obvious, why don’t the poor eat better? Eating well doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive. Most mothers could surely afford iodized salt, which is now standard in many parts of the world, or one dose of iodine every two years (at 51 cents per dose). Poor households could easily get a lot more calories and other nutrients by spending less on expensive grains (like rice and wheat), sugar, and processed foods, and more on leafy vegetables and coarse grains. But in Kenya, when the NGO that was running the deworming program asked parents in some schools to pay a few cents for deworming their children, almost all refused, thus depriving their children of hundreds of dollars of extra earnings over their lifetime. . . .

‘It is simply not very easy to learn about the value of many of these nutrients based on personal experience. Iodine might make your children smarter, but the difference is not huge, and in most cases you will not find out either way for many years. Iron, even if it makes people stronger, does not suddenly turn you into a superhero. The $40 extra a year the self-employed man earned may not even have been apparent to him, given the many ups and downs of his weekly income.

‘So it shouldn’t surprise us that the poor choose their foods not mainly for their cheap prices and nutritional value, but for how good they taste. . . .

‘We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don’t invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

‘We asked Oucha Mbarbk what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, “Oh, but television is more important than food!”‘

Read the whole article in the special food issue of Foreign Policy: More than 1 billion people are hungry in the world, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, May/June 2011.

In the same issue is an article on the The new geopolitics of food by Lester Brown, previously reported on in this blog, and a wonderful photoessay on How food explains the world by Joshua Keating. The latter includes the following (delicious) mouthfuls, but be sure to click on the link to see the pictures that accompany them.

The Strategic Pork Reserve
‘China is a porcine superpower as well as a human one. The Middle Kingdom boasts more than 446 million pigs—one for every three Chinese people and more than the next 43 countries combined. So when there’s a major disruption in the pork supply it hits the economy hard; the “blue-ear pig” disease that forced Chinese farmers to slaughter millions of pigs in 2008, for example, drove the country’s inflation rate to its highest level in a decade. To prevent further disruptions, the Chinese government established a strategic pork reserve shortly afterward, keeping icy warehouses around the country stocked with frozen pork that can be released during times of shortage. The government was forced to add to the reserve—taking pigs off the market—in the spring of 2010 when a glut led to prices collapsing. . . .

Bug Bites
‘. . . An insect-based diet could provide just as much protein as meat (plus key vitamins and minerals) with far fewer emissions, the FAO says. And breeding insects such as locusts, crickets, and mealworms emits one-tenth the amount of methane that raising livestock does, scientists say. The idea isn’t as far-out as one might think. More than 1,000 insects are already known to be eaten in about 80 percent of the world’s countries, though the idea remains a source of revulsion in the Western world. The FAO is putting its money where its mouth is, investing in insect-farming projects in Laos, where locusts and crickets are already popular delicacies. A world conference on insect eating is planned for 2013. . . .

Colonel Sanders Imperialism
‘In the early days of Egypt’s anti-government uprising this winter, some journalists attempted to label it the “Koshary Revolution” after Egypt’s traditional dish of rice, lentils, macaroni, and fried onions. But Hosni Mubarak’s embattled regime was hoping to tie the protesters to a more sinister foodstuff: Kentucky Fried Chicken. Reports on state television described protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square munching on free buckets of KFC, seeing them as proof of subversive foreign influence, though independent journalists at the scene couldn’t find a particularly high number of KFC eaters. The U.S. chain has about 100 restaurants in Egypt, compared with fewer than 60 for McDonald’s, but the price of a meal, which can be up to three days’ wages, makes it a rare delicacy for most Egyptians. There were also reports of the government paying its thugs with chicken dinners, and street vendors jokingly began shouting “Kentucky” to hawk everything from popcorn to falafel. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the first time that KFC has been cast as the enemy in the Muslim world. . . . ‘

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