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2020 Vision Brief 19, May 1995 

Causes of Hunger

by Marc J. Cohen and Don Reeves

The persistence of hunger in a world of plenty is the most profound moral contradiction of our age. Nearly 800 million people in the developing world (20 percent of the total population) are chronically undernourished. At least 2 billion suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Yet since the mid-1970s the world has produced enough food to provide everyone with a minimally adequate diet.

Figure 1

The Geography of Hunger
The number of undernourished people in developing countries fell from 942 million in 1970 to 786 million in 1990 and from 36 percent to 20 percent of the population (Figure 1). The poorest and most food-insecure people are disproportionately in Africa. The largest number of chronically undernourished people live in the Asia-Pacific region, although the number dropped from 762 million in 1970 to 540 million in 1990 (from 40 to 20 percent of the population). However, hunger remains especially severe in South Asia (Figure 2). In Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of hungry people rose from 94 million in 1970 to 175 million in 1990. Growing poverty, debt, economic decline, poor terms of trade, rapid population growth, unfavorable weather, war, and governmental collapse have all contributed to the continent's food problems. In the United States, the share of the population facing hunger rose from 8 percent in 1985 to 12 percent in 1990 (from 20 to 30 million). But hunger in wealthy nations is neither as severe nor as widespread as in developing countries.

Figure 2 graphicCauses of Hunger
Hunger is one piece of a complex of interrelated social ills. It is linked intricately to global economic, political, and social power structures; modes of development and consumption; population dynamics; and social biases based on race, ethnicity, gender, and age. 

(1) Poverty and powerlessness. One of the main causes of hunger is poverty--lack of purchasing power and access to resources. Worldwide, 1.3 billion people live on less than US$1 per day. Nearly one-third of the people in developing countries are poor; the figure rises to 70 to 80 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty is linked not only with poor national economic performance but also with an unequal distribution of income and a political structure that renders poor people powerless, whether in a democracy or a dictatorship. Mustering the political will to make policies that fight hunger and favor a more equitable distribution of income a top government priority requires a strong public constituency. Popular movements and government policy can work to end the spiral of powerlessness. In such diverse places as Brazil, Zimbabwe, and the Indian state of Kerala, popular movements have pressed governments to end hunger. In South Korea the government enacted public policies that fostered economic growth accompanied by decreasing income inequality.

(2) Population, consumption, and the environment. The world's population is expected to grow from its current 5.5 billion to about 8 billion by 2020; more than 93 percent of this increase will occur in lower-income countries. Debate is ongoing over whether the earth can support its growing population without severe ecological damage. Even if the world's population stabilizes by the mid-21st century, food production will have to double. Pessimists see this requirement as beyond the planet's "carrying capacity." Optimists expect continued innovations, such as the recent breakthrough in rice breeding, to meet this demand. Fresh water, land, forests, and fisheries are today being used at or beyond capacity. In the competition for resources, poor and hungry people, lacking economic and political clout, become even more marginalized. Especially in countries where landholdings are inequitable, poor families are forced to move onto fragile land and often to overcrowded cities. Globally, incomes and consumption differ starkly. Twenty percent of the world's population--mostly in industrial countries--receives 85 percent of the world's income and accounts for 80 percent of consumption, producing two-thirds of all greenhouse gases and 90 percent of ozone- depleting chlorofluorocarbons. This level of consumption is not sustainable at the global level. If the current global population lived as the richest 20 percent do, consumption of energy would increase 10 times and minerals 200 times. Policymakers on all levels need to shape integrated policies and programs that reflect the relationship between improved lives for poor people and reduced population growth, reduced consumption of nonrenewable resources, and protection of the environment.

(3) Violence and militarism. New and continuing civil strife are the source of severe human disasters in Afghanistan, Burma, Mozambique, Nagorno-Karabakh, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Most victims of these conflicts are innocent civilians, not combatants. A study by Frances Stewart found that in 14 of 16 developing countries at war since 1970, per capita food consumption dropped, by more than 15 percent in 6 of them. War slows or stops food production and marketing. Food supplies are plundered and used as instruments of war, crop cycles are interrupted, seeds and breeding livestock are consumed in desperation, and children suffer permanent damage as a result of insufficient food. Even if fighting never occurs, heavy military spending drains resources away from food production, education, and health care. Global military spending declined from its peak of $1 trillion in 1987 to an estimated $767 billion (still more than the total income of the poorest 45 percent of the world's population) in 1994. Some of the savings have shifted to national social programs, but none have gone to international development assistance. Developing countries spend $125 billion per year on military forces. One-quarter of this would provide primary health care for all their citizens, reduce adult literacy by half, and provide family planning to all willing couples.

(4) Racism and ethnocentrism. Racial discrimination and competition between ethnic groups have caused hunger, malnutrition, and resource deprivation for black populations in South Africa and the Americas, Indians in Latin America, Kurds in Iraq, and Tamils in Sri Lanka, to name just a few. In Sudan, discrimination against the black Christian and animist south by the predominantly Arab Muslim north has locked the country in civil war for decades. Both sides use food as a weapon, and malnutrition rates are the highest ever documented--80 percent in some areas. In recent years, 1.3 million people have died from famine and disease. In 1994, the United Nations estimated that 2.5 million Sudanese required food aid. Between 1980 and 1991, per capita food production in the south declined by 29 percent. While the problems are immense and complicated, some countries have triumphed over racial differences. Zimbabwe has achieved social integration without substantial racial strife, offering a model for achieving multiracial democracy and reduced hunger in nearby South Africa.

(5) Gender discrimination. Because women bear and nourish children, they have special nutritional needs. Yet women of every age have disproportionately higher rates of malnutrition than men and are overrepresented among poor, illiterate, and displaced people. Malnutrition among mothers also has a negative effect on the growth of children. Almost universally women work longer hours than men and carry primary responsibility for household chores even when working outside the home. Women's pay rates are nearly universally lower than those for men (on average, 30 to 40 percent lower), even for equivalent work. Women's needs and rights are receiving greater weight in development efforts, but there is still a long way to go before women and men around the world have equal economic, social, and political opportunities.

(6) Vulnerability of children and elderly people. The effects of childhood malnutrition last a lifetime, and even into succeeding generations. Malnutrition is a factor in one-third of the 13 million annual deaths of children under five years old. The number of malnourished children under five in the developing world rose from 168 million in 1975 to 184 million in 1990, but fell as a share of all developing-country children from 42 to 34 percent. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are less easily noticed, but they can severely retard the growth and mental development of children. The 1990 World Summit for Children pledged to halve malnutrition among children under five by the year 2000. Progress is uneven, but generally encouraging. Elderly people are disproportionately vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition in both industrial and developing countries. Elderly populations are growing everywhere as people live longer, and with changing lifestyles and family structures, the elderly in many countries are receiving less care from the family. Strategies to care for the increasing number of aged over the next 25 years need to be developed.

The world community has both the knowledge and the resources to eliminate hunger. Putting these tools to work requires us to ground our choices--small and large, individual and collective, political and economic--in ethical values, including empowerment and justice, stewardship of common resources for the common good, and affirmation of diversity. 

Marc J. Cohen is senior research associate and Don Reeves is economic policy  analyst at Bread for the World Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A."A 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment" is an initiative of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to develop a shared vision and consensus for action on how to meet future world food needs while reducing poverty and protecting the environment. Through the 2020 Vision initiative, IFPRI is bringing together divergent schools of thought on these issues, generating research, and identifying recommendations. The 2020 Briefs present information on various aspects of the issues. 

Hunger: Myths & Realities

by the Rehydration Project

Myth One: There is not enough food and not enough land.
Untrue: Measured globally, there is enough to feed everyone. For example there is enough grain being produced today to provide everybody in the world with enough protein and about 3000 calories a day, which is what the average American consumes. But the world's food supply is not evenly distributed. Those who have much accumulate more, while those who have little edge toward starvation. In most countries with widespread hunger, a few large landowners control nearly all agricultural production sometimes with disastrous results. Much rich farmland remains unused, or one harvest is gathered per year when there could be two or three. Land is used for "cash crops" such as cotton or coffee instead of food. To the owners, land becomes an "investment" not a source of food for those who live on it.

Myth Two: There are too many people to feed.
Contrary to popular belief, overpopulation is not the cause of hunger. It's usually the other way around: hunger is one of the real causes of overpopulation. The more children a poor family has the more likely some will survive to work in the fields or in the city to add to the family's small income and, later, to care for the parents in their old age. All this points to the disease that is at the root of both hunger and overpopulation: The powerlessness of people who must rely on food that is grown and distributed by wealthy people who have never felt hunger pangs, yet who determine how the land will be used, if at all and who will benefit from its fruits. High birth rates are symptoms of the failures of a social system - inadequate family income, inadequate nutrition and health care and old-age security.

Myth Three: Growing more food will mean less hunger in poor countries.
But it doesn't seem to work that way. "More food" is what the last 30 years' War on Hunger has been about. Farming methods have been "modernized", ambitious irrigation plans carried out, "miracle" seeds, new pesticides, fertilizers and machinery have become available. But who has come out better off? Farmers who already have land. money and the ability to buy on credit - not the desperately poor and hungry. In Pakistan for example a farmer must have at least 12.5 acres of land to get a loan from the Bank: but this excludes over 80 percent of Pakistan's farmers! Who else benefits? Moneylenders, landlords, bureaucrats, military officers, city-based speculators and foreign corporation - as the value or the land goes up only the rich can afford to buy the farming land. Small farmers go bankrupt or are bought out. Human energy and imagination can be organized to turn a desert into a grain field. This can be done - we have the know-how. When land is in the hands of the people who live and work on it , they are more likely to be motivated to make the land more productive and distribution of food more equitable thus benefiting all peoples.

Myth Four: Hunger is a contest between rich countries and poor countries.
To many Americans the hungry world is seen as the enemy who in Lyndon Johnson's words, "aint what we got". But hunger will never be eliminated until we recognize the poor of Bangladesh, Colombia, Senegal as our neighbors. Rich or poor we are all part of the same global food system which is gradually coming under the control of a few huge corporations. These giant businesses grow and market food for the benefit of those people who have money which means primarily people in North American and Europe. Poor people in the Third World market pay food prices that are determined by what people in rich countries are willing to pay. This is direct cause of hunger in many poor countries. On the other hand, people in rich countries are unaware that their own consumption is creating suction force in the world food market, diverting food from meeting the needs of the very people who have grown it. In both rich and poor countries farmers, workers, consumers feel the impact of this system of international control, through artificial shortages of certain products, through high food prices, through poor-quality goods. Even in countries like the Unite States and Canada, small farmers find themselves unable to afford the machinery that need to keep their farms running well. Older people on small pensions even in the United States and Canada, find themselves unable to afford the food they deserve.

Myth Five: Hunger can be solved by redistributing the food to the hungry.
Over and over we hear that North America is the world's last remaining "bread basket." The rich world's over consumption and wastefulness are endlessly compared with the misery of the poor. True. Adapting a simpler lifestyle helps us to understand our interrelatedness with all people and less wastefulness is better stewardship. But neither" one less hamburger a week". Nor massive food aid programs, will eventually solve widespread starvation and poverty in the poorest nation. People will only cease to be poor when they control the means of providing and/or producing food for themselves. We must face up to the real questions: who controls the land? Who cultivates it ? A few. Or all who need to? What will be grown in poorer nations - strawberries to export to the tables of the well-fed in the United States or basic grains for local consumption? How can control of the land get back into the hands of the people who need it? Who influences the distribution of food? How can people be enabled to provide food for themselves?

Myth Six: A strong military defense provides a secure environment in which people can prosper.
But who feels secure on and empty stomach? The extraordinary investment the world makes in armaments annually (currently $900 billion) ensures that few funds are available for agricultural and economic development and shows that those who decide how a nation's money is spent are not intimately acquainted with the violence of hunger. The security of countries both great and small, depends first of all in a population that has enough food, enough jobs, adequate energy and safe, comfortable housing. When a society cannot provide these basics, all the guns and bombs in the world cannot maintain peace.

Global Hunger
Current estimates are that 700 million people in the world, more than the entire population of the western hemisphere, do not get enough food for an active and healthy life. World Military & Social Expenditures 1986

Each year 40 million people die from hunger and hunger-related diseases. This figure is equivalent to more than 300 jumbo jet crashes a day with no survivors, almost half of the passengers being children. GAIA : An Atlas of Planet Management

Each year 15 million children under age 5 die - 1/4 of all the world's deaths. Up to half of those who survive suffer malnutrition severe enough to leave them with non-reversible damage. Understanding the Presbyterian Hunger Program

Poverty and Plenty. In the Northern Hemisphere malnutrition takes the form of over-consumption of sugars, fats and animal products resulting in obesity, heart disease and diabetes. In the US alone, at least 1/3 of those aged over 40 can be classified as obese. In 1982, the UK spent 235 million on slimming aids-compared to just 50 million donated to private aid agencies. GAIA: An Atlas of Planet Management

One person in 5 in developing countries is undernourished; one in 5 in major industrialized countries is overweight or obese. World Military & Social Expenditures 1986

Each child born in the industrialized world will consume 20 to 40 times as much as a child in the developing world in his or her lifetime. So small population increases in the rich world put 8 times as much pressure on world resources as larger population increases in the poor world. Understanding the Presbyterian Hunger Program

Hunger in the U.S.
In America more than one out of every five children is poor. Almost 2 out of every 3 poor children are white. Nearly half of all black children in America are poor. Nearly 2 out of every 5 Hispanic children are poor. More that half of all children in female-headed families are poor. Children 's Defense Budget 1986

Hunger is a problem of epidemic proportions across the US. While no one knows the precise number of hungry Americans, available evidence indicates that up to 20,000,000 citizens may be hungry at least some period of time each month. Physician Task Force on Hunger in America

Bread food the World, (revised 1984) Arthur Simon, Paulist Press, New York
A Children's Defense Budget, 1986 children's Defense Fund, 122 C Street NW, Washington DC 20001.
Food First, 1979 Frances Moore Lappe' and Joseph Collins, Food First Institute for Food & Development Policy, 1885 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.
Food for Beginners, 1982 Susan George % Nigel Paige, Writers & Readers Publishing Cooperative Society Ltd., 144 Camden High Street, London LWI ONE. England.
GAIA: An Atlas of Planet Management, 1984 Dr. Norman Myers, editors Anchor Press/Doubleday & Company Inc., New York.
Hunger in America: The Growing Epidemic, 1985. Physician Task Force on Hunger in America. Harvard University School of Public Health.
Understanding the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Distribution Service, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 905, New York. New York 10115.
World Hunger: Twelve Myths, 1986 Frances Moore Lappe' and Joseph Collins, Food First. Institute for Food & Development Policy, 1885 Mission Street , San Francisco. CA 94103.
World Military & Social Expenditures, 1986 , Ruth Leger Sivard, World Priorities. Inc,. Box 25140. Washington DC 20007.

Land Loss, Poverty and Hunger

by Anuradha Mittal, International Forum on Globalization

December 3, 2001

According to the free market ideology, the best way to fight global hunger and improve the economic situation of farmers in developing countries is through trade and investment liberalization, production for export, and cuts in domestic support. These policy changes, however, have severely undermined food security and the livelihoods of small farmers in developing countries.

In India, according to the Indian government's own estimates, over two million small and marginal farmers now lose their land or are alienated from it each year. The number of landless in rural areas has multiplied over the past few decades from 27.9 million in 1951 to over 50 million in the 1990s. Many of the displaced farmers have ended up as daily-wage laborers for the Public Works Department, working on national highways, suffering from poisonous fumes, heat and dust, and earning less than a dollar for a whole day's toil, having long sold off their precious cattle.

Hundreds of thousands of other displaced farmers have tried to find refuge in large cities such as Delhi and Bombay, eking a miserable livelihood through piecemeal work away from their families. Others send their young children to work in factories or sell them as child beggars, or even sell their own body parts to make ends meet. And the situation is only set to become worse. According to the World Bank 's own projections, the number of people migrating from rural areas into the cities will soon exceed the combined populations of the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

Part of the reason for this trend can be traced to the impact of imports. In August 1999, for example, soybean and soy oil import policy was liberalized in India. As a result, subsidized imports of soybeans were dumped on the Indian market. These imports totalled three million tons in one year (a 60 percent rise compared to earlier years) and cost nearly $1 billion. Within one growing season, prices crashed by more than two-thirds, and millions of oilseed-producing farmers had lost their market, unable even to recover what they had spent on cultivation. The entire edible oil production and processing industry was also destroyed. Millions of small mills have closed down. Another reason for massive farmer displacement is that food-growing land is being taken over from small farmers by an elite of large companies to produce cash crops such as flowers, or luxury commodities such as shrimp, for export. For those farmers that remain on the land, this corporatization of agriculture has clearly increased poverty, locking them into a new form of bondage with unfair and unequal contracts that deprive them of the majority of the revenue generated by the exports. For example, farmers in Punjab who were contracted by Pepsico to grow tomatoes, received only Rs.0.75 per kg while the market price was Rs. 2.00. Elsewhere, it 's even worse. For every dollar that a U.S. consumer pays for a melon from El Salvador, farmers earn less than one penny, the winners are U.S.-based shippers, brokers, wholesalers, and retailers.

The phasing out of fertiliser subsidies under IMF conditionalities and the increase in the price of farm inputs have also pushed a large number of small-and medium-sized Indian farmers into bankruptcy. One result has been an epidemic of suicide among small farmers in India, desperate to escape the humiliation that comes with bankruptcy and indebtedness. In 1999, more than 500 cotton farmers from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab and Haryana sacrificed their lives.

Removal of food subsidies in India, meanwhile, has led to a decrease in the amount of food purchased from the public distribution system. The off-take of rice declined from 10.1 metric tons in 1991-92 to 6.9 metric tons in 1995-96 and the off-take of wheat went down from 8.8 metric tons to 3.8 metric tons. And all while cereal exports have gone up from 1.4 percent to 3.4 percent.

The victims of free market dogma can be found all over the developing world. An estimated 43 per- cent of the rural population of Thailand now lives below the poverty line, even though agricultural exports grew an astounding 65 percent between 1985 and 1995. In Bolivia, following half a decade of the most spectacular agricultural export growth in its history, by 1990, 95 percent of the rural population earned less than a dollar a day. In the Philippines, as acreage under rice and corn declines and the area under "cut flowers " increases, 350,000 rural livelihoods are set to be destroyed.

Similarly, in Brazil during the 1970s, agricultural exports, particularly soybeans (almost all of which went to feed Japanese and European livestock), were boosted phenomenally. At the same time, however, the hunger of Brazilians spread from one-third of the population in the 1960s to two-thirds by the early 1980s. Even in the 1990s, as Brazil became the world 's third largest agricultural exporter -- the area planted to soybeans having grown 37 percent from 1980 to 1995, displacing forests and small farmers in the process -- per capita production of rice, a basic staple of the Brazilian diet, fell by 18 percent.

The Mexican government, meanwhile, has put over 2 million corn farmers out of business over the past few years by allowing imports of heavily subsidized corn from the United States. A flood of cheap imported grain has also driven local farmers out of business in Costa Rica. From 1984 to 1989, the number growing corn, beans, and rice, the staples of the local diet, fell from 70,000 to 27,000. That is the loss of 42,300 livelihoods. The same has taken place in Haiti, which the IMF forced open to imports of highly subsidized U.S.rice at the same time as it banned Haiti from subsidizing its own farmers. Between 1980 and 1997, rice imports grew from virtually zero to 200,000 tons a year, at the expense of domestically produced staples. As a result, Haitian farmers have been forced off their land to seek work in sweatshops, and people are worse off than ever: according to the IMF 's own figures, 50 percent of Haitian children younger than 5 suffer from malnutrition and per capita income has dropped from around $600 in 1980 to $369 today.

Kenya, which had been self-sufficient until the 1980s, now imports 80 percent of its food, while 80 percent of its exports are accounted for by agriculture. In 1992, European Union (EU) wheat was sold in Kenya for 39 percent cheaper than the price paid to European farmers by the EU. In 1993, it was 50 percent cheaper. Consequently, imports of EU grain rose and, in 1995, Kenyan wheat prices collapsed through oversupply, undermining local production and creating poverty.

Far from ending hunger and promoting the economic interests of small farmers, agricultural liberalization has created a global food system that is structured to suit the interests of the powerful, to the detriment of poor farmers around the world.

Anuradha Mittal is the co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, and an associate of the International Forum on Globalization. This essay is part of an IFG report, "Does Globalization Help the Poor?", released prior to the recent World Bank and IMF meetings in Ottawa.