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The global hunger crisis – a moral ‘maize’

News Section Icon Published 09/08/2012


If you want to feed the world, you need to produce as much food as you can, as quickly as possible. Factory farming’s the answer, right? Wrong! As world leaders prepare to attend the UK "Hunger Summit" this Sunday, we look at a relatively simple (and often ignored) solution to help turn the tide.

A perfect storm

The global hunger crisis is rearing its ugly head again (not that it ever went away). Climate change, drought, failing crops and rising grain prices are all conspiring to create one of the most severe global hunger crises the world has ever seen. And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

Depressing data

Hunger is wreaking havoc on hundreds of millions of people around the world. The World Health Organisation1 lists hunger as the number one health risk worldwide, taking more lives than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. One in seven people will go to bed hungry tonight, which equates to around a billion people. Save the Children states that 300 children die every hour of malnutrition2 and over 170 million children suffer from irreversible physical and mental stunting due to poor nutrition3.

Speaking specifically about the Sahel region of Africa (one of the worst affected), Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children (quoted in The Independent4), said the region was in a "permanent food crisis... It is lurching from one crisis to the next. One bad year tips families over the edge, and the world responds to the emergency, but this is the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, there is a huge ongoing crisis we don't address."

What’s the beef?

So there’s clearly a problem – and a devastating one at that. But why does it exist? Well, we know that there’s enough food to go around; the problem is generally one of ineffective distribution.

And while there are many drivers affecting this distribution, there is one that appears to take the crown in terms of scale. And it comes back to food, or factory-farmed food, to be precise.

Factory farming is responsible for rearing nearly 50 billion farm animals worldwide every year – around 70% of the total number of farm animals. These animals require a lot of grain, but are fairly inefficient at converting this into meat and dairy; a third of the world’s cereals are being fed to livestock, but they provide only 16% of the world’s calories.

What’s the fix?

Aid is one vital part of the puzzle, but, as mentioned above, this is a short-term solution and won’t address the more systemic drivers.

There’s a huge amount of media attention around biofuels and the fact that the development of low-carbon fuels is inadvertently diverting grain from those who need it most. But while a seventh of global grain harvests goes to ethanol, a third goes to farm-animal feed. This rises to just under two thirds if we look at Europe in isolation.

Ending factory farming could be a huge part of the solution to hunger. As would eating smaller amounts of higher-quality meat, particularly in the West (while a billion go hungry every year, more than a billion of us are overweight or obese).

Calling the UK Government

It’s promising that world leaders are meeting on Sunday to try and tackle one of the biggest humanitarian concerns that we face globally right now. But two crucial areas – factory farming and meat overconsumption in the West – are being ignored.

David Cameron (quoted in The Independent5) has stated that he wants "to find new ways of tackling malnutrition – fostering innovation in biotechnology, encouraging stronger co-operation between governments and ensuring better accountability by Governments who receive aid".

But if global leaders want to find new ways of tackling hunger, they would do well to look at the ethics of how the world’s cereals are being used and stop prioritising factory farming and cars over people. We have a highly resource-intensive and wasteful food system and this needn’t be the case. We are producing enough food for everyone in the world, but it is unevenly distributed. Wealthy countries are overconsuming meat at the expense of those who cannot afford to eat.

We have options. We can change things for the better by ensuring more cereal crops are fed directly to people and not to factory-farmed livestock. And we can choose to eat less but better meat and dairy, which makes more efficient use of the world’s precious resources.

Our sources

  1. World Food Programme (2012), Hunger Stats
  2. Save the Children (2012), No Child Born to Die
  3. Save The Children (2012), Nutrition in the First 1,000 Days
  4. The Independent (2012), Almost a billion go hungry worldwide
  5. The Independent (2012), Almost a billion go hungry worldwide

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