Of obesity, starvation and crises
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Of obesity, starvation and crises
Saturday, 27 June 2009 01:05

 

The rich OECD countries are getting fatter and fatter.  At the same time, food, fuel and financial crises are pushing up the number of hungry people in the developing world.

 

 

 

Obesity (% of adults with BMI>30 kg/m2) went up by some 50 per cent from 1995 to 2006, with more than 15 per cent of OECD adult population being obese.  The US is the worst case, 34 per cent of Americans are obese.  Then come Mexico with 30 per cent and the UK with 24 per cent.  Even the fighting fit Japanese and Koreans have seen obesity go up by half, though fatties only represent 3.9 and 3.5 per cent of their populations respectively.

Obesity is bound to have gone up even further these past three years with the global economic and financial crisis.  Those who have lost jobs, houses or wealth are surely resorting to more fast food as an economy measure.  And overeating is a typical reaction of economic and financial stress.

By contrast, in the developing world this year there are 1.02 billion people who are victims of hunger, an increase of about 100 million from last year.  This represents one-sixth of humanity, and it is the first time that this figure exceeds one billion.  The World Food Summit target of reducing the number of hungry people by half, to no more than 420 million by 2015 now seems well out of reach.

The global map of world hunger shows 642 million in Asia-Pacific, 265 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, 53 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, 42 million in the Middle East and North Africa, and 15 million in the developed world.  The Asia-Pacific with its massive population tops the scales.  Although Asia has seen the world’s largest reduction in poverty, this challenge has only been partly solved, as Asia also has the world’s highest number of poor people.  Africa has the highest proportion of hungry people, with 32 per cent of its population being undernourished.

Why is the number of hungry people rising (in fact, it has been on a slow and steady rise from 825 million people in 1995-97)?  There is no a shortage of food, world cereal production this year will not be much less than last year’s record output level. The problem is that the current crisis is reducing incomes and employment, as exports, foreign investment and remittances are drying up (Official Development Assistance to the poorest countries is also set to fall sharply).

As most of their income goes on their food budgets, the poor’s capacity to buy food is adversely hit.  The rural landless and urban poor are the most affected by the crisis as they cannot fall back on self subsistence farming.   The current economic and financial crisis follows, and partly overlaps, the 2006-2008 food and fuel crisis which had sent prices through the roof.  Although food prices have retreated since 2008, they still remain high.

As we get both fatter and richer, it is scandalous that we have a world with more than one billion hungry people.  It is also a threat to world peace and security, according to FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

What to do?  Immediate assistance is obviously required.  Safety nets and social protection programmes must be created or improved to reach those most in need.

Looking ahead to the medium and long terms, structural solutions are necessary to tackle the root causes of hunger.  According to the Chinese proverb, if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.   This brings us back to the whole development agenda.  In Asia, open markets, good governance and social investments in education and health have driven growth, boosted incomes and reduced poverty and hunger.

But agriculture also needs to be moved back to the centre of development policy, especially in those countries where the scope for improved efficiency is large.  As the FAO says, “These countries must be assisted with the necessary technical and financial solutions and policy tools to enhance their agricultural sectors in terms of productivity and resilience in the face of crises.”

Where will the assistance come from?  If we simply shift some of the agricultural subsidies in OECD countries over to the developing world, that would help a lot.

References:

OECD in Figures 2008 – www.oecd.org

“More people than ever are victims of hunger”, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – www.fao.org


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