Compare and Contrast: 200 Dead – One Billion Hungry

As bad as it is, why does this…

Get more coverage than this?

For multiple reasons, of course, something I will touch upon in my review of Stealth Conflicts. But what is obvious is that scale is not the issue, otherwise, 1 billion hungry people would deserve front page, compared to 200 dead in Gaza (as horrific as it is). In most media, and especially in the US, it is a simple morality play: innocent Israel is defending itself against evil Hamas. In Europe, and especially in left-wing circles, fascist Israel is killing innocent Paslestinians. Of course, no one dares touching the fact that it is the clash of two types of religious fundamentalism that bear a big part of responsbility here. Also, the power differential is so great between Israel and Hamas that they cannot be equated.

On the other hand, our 1 billion hungry people, that is a more complicated story for Western audiences with short attention span:

Not to mention that hunger deaths are slow and unspectacular deaths in a world of sensationalist global media whereas blowing up stuff ("shock and awe") has greater visual impact. Mass violence rates better than structural violence.

Also, governments in general have an interest in getting coverage for things they can benefit from: the US government will never miss an opportunity to defend Israel (heck, Obama was genuflexing even before being elected) against terrorists. European governments want to appear to be defending the rights of both sides.

When it comes to hunger, no one wants to discuss the reasons for the high costs of food, agricultural subsidies or unfair trade policies that strangle the agricultural sector in developing countries or indeed, the strage fact that hunger is not connected to food shortage. The West might appear less than noble here.

The Hidden Costs of Meat

I have blogged about this before as well: the general lack of concern in our rich societies with the actual costs of our eating habits, especially the enormous consumption of meat as social, health and environmental issue. Here is another case that delineates extremely well all the global connections pertaining to meat consumption and the range of social problems related to it… such as burning down ecosystems to make room for cattle raising or to grow the crops to feed cattles.


So, here again, we use the periphery to grow crops that will be fed to livestock and cattle that will end up as meat in Western plates, as in the case of Paraguay.

The numbers are staggering just for the Uk.

Indeed, as upper classes become richer in developing countries, they tend to also adopt Western food tastes. We already know this is the case in China. This means, of course, more meat demand, and therefore, more crop growth specifically for that purpose.

The social consequences for the growing countries are devastating.

And this is not limited to South America:

The agribusiness sector denies any connection, of course. But what we see here is a global unsustainable food chain that leaves in its trail another chain: that of social consequences of diet in the rich countries, based on the use of the periphery to feed not the rich countries, but the animals whose meat is a major part of the (very unhealthy) diet of rich consumers. But this is a zero sum game where the lifestyle of the richest parts of the world are literally based on starving and poisoning the periphery.

But it is one of the major consequences of social privileges: that the negative consequences of our lifestyle are hidden from our view. The extent of lying and denial is amazing: one would wish for true labeling that would reveal the full and true cost of every piece of meat bought in supermarkets.

Water Footprint – The Actual Costs of Living

It’s World Water Week, so, let’s talk about water footprint, shall we?

Via The Worldwatch Institute,

"If the full water requirements of a morning roast are calculated – farm irrigation, bean transportation, and the serving of the coffee – one cup requires 140 liters of water.

This notion of a product’s "water footprint" is gaining traction. Defined as the total volume of freshwater required to produce a nation’s goods and services, the tool tracks domestic water demand and the impact of consumption on water resources across the globe.

As world water availability begins to decline as the result of population growth, overconsumption, and climate change, more water advocates are encouraging governments and consumers to internalize the true cost of water through an account of their water footprint."

The map below illustrates the import of water required by the Netherlands to make tea and coffee (click here for the research articles).

Water footprint

Continue reading

World Bank President Urges a New Deal to Fight Hunger

It’s about damn time . The bad news regarding food supplies have been out for months now. Better late than never though (via the BBC):

“The World Bank has called on the international community to co-ordinate its efforts in a “new deal” to fight global hunger and malnutrition. A move was needed because of soaring global food and energy prices, said the bank’s president, Robert Zoellick. Mr Zoellick said the top priority was to give the UN World Food Programme an extra $500m for emergency food aid. The World Bank estimates 33 countries face potential social unrest because of rising food and energy prices. As well as urging the US, the EU, Japan and other developed countries to provide the World Food Programme with extra funds for emergency aid, Mr Zoellick said the new deal required a shift towards a broader concept of food and nutrition assistance.”

So, what exactly is this New Deal? In addition to the immediate emergency funding, Zoellick proposes that emerging countries use 1% of their sovereign wealth funds to invest in Sub-Saharan Africa (what he calls a “one percent solution”). According to Zoellick, these funds hold $3 trillion in assets. One percent would liberate $30 billion to invest to promote development and trigger a new Green Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, he also proposes a more open trade system when it comes to agricultural goods, criticizing the unfairness and the protectionism of the United States in this matter. As such, he promotes an end to core countries’ agricultural subsidies that distort the market and strangle the agricultural sectors of poor countries. All these are remarkably progressive ideas.

The Perils of Desertification

Le Monde interviews geographer Marc Bied-Charreton, president of the French scientific committee on desertification (CSFD) regarding his statement that the number of people affected by desertification – defined as a progressive loss of soil fertility, reduced to 10-15% of vegetation left in an area – will jump from 5-600 hundred million to 2-3 billions in the near future if nothing is done to stop it. According to Bied-Charreto, the causes of desertification and its increasing impact are multiple”

  • increasing population
  • climate change
  • no adaptation in agricultural systems

Desertification reduces the soil’s capacity to retain water thereby losing its fertility and increasing erosion. Life forms disappear and the ecosystem’s capacity to regenerate itself is weakened. This lower regeneration itself reduces the soil’s capacity to retain water… vicious cycle.

As a result, we can expect longer, more frequent and more severe droughts. And without a doubt, human activities play a large – but not exclusive – part in desertification, especially intensive agriculture. However, not all regions will be equally affected by desertification: Africa will be the first victims, followed by the Asian continental plate and the Australian deserts. Europe will not be spared though: Spain, Sicily, Cyprus, Sardinia and Greece will be affected as well. The consequences will be planetary in scale.

The human consequences will be devastating in the affected areas: subsistence agricultural outputs will decrease so will food supply as well as income generated by subsistence surplus. Decreasing outputs will also affect cash crops and corresponding outcomes. This is already the case for cotton and sorghum.

What will peasants do? They will have no choice but to increase the size of cultivated areas, introducing desertification to new land. And when there is no more land to cultivate, they will move to the cities and become shantytown dwellers in search of better living conditions, fueling uncontrolled urbanization (another major environmental issue). Alternatively, they will migrate to other countries where they will not be welcome and where demagogic anti-immigrant political groups will stigmatize them and blame them for any issue they can think of. Finally, this also raises the prospects described by Michael Klare of resource wars: water and land.

What are the solutions then?

  • Sustainable agriculture to stop soil erosion
  • Small-scale dams to retain water in small quantities
  • Limited use of fertilizers
  • Preservation of the traditional technique of using 15% of one’s crop as seeds for next year’s crop (no need for genetically modified seeds but use of natural selection)

If it is so simple, why is this not happening already? Money is the issue, of course. The cost of these measure is between $300-400 per hectare per year for 3-4 years. Peasants do not have these amounts of money. In the current context of development aid, money goes to big infrastructure projects and urban populations. A redistribution of money and priorities is needed.

Before We Start Stuffing Ourselves during the Holidays…

A little something to remind us of the economics of food production and distribution:

“The soaring cost of food is threatening millions of people in poor countries, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned.
Food prices have risen an unprecedented 40% in the last year and many nations may be unable to cope, the agency says.It is calling for help for farmers in poor countries to buy seeds and fertiliser, and for a review of the impact of bio-fuels on food production.”

Let’s see… “the impact of bio-fuels on food production”?? Could it be that we use arable land to grow corn to make ethanol and that, as a result, food production decreases and prices go up? Or could it be that the spread of certain types of diets also limits subsistence food production?

“The increases are partly due to droughts and floods linked to climate change, as well as rising oil prices boosting demand for bio-fuels, the FAO said.

Jacques Diouf The FAO director general has warned millions could be at risk

Changing diet in fast-developing nations such as China is also considered a factor, with more land needed to raise livestock to meet increasing demand for meat.. (…) The use of land to grow plants which can be used to make alternative fuels – and the use of food crops themselves for fuel – has reduced food supplies and helped push up prices.”