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Are the poor getting hungrier?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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July 28, 2011
Lately there has been a lot of anguish about the rise in world food prices and how this has affected the nutrition of the poorest. A number of things are to blame for the price rise- although usually only wheat, rice and soya beans are measured. In some regions it is bad weather, in particular in the Horn of Africa where there is now a famine; the rise in oil prices which has led to a rise in the price of fertilizer; the growth of bio fuels- the US now uses 40% of its corn for these.
As long ago as 1974 when grain prices had just quadrupled all the nations of the world promised that by the end of the century “no child would go to bed hungry”. After a steady increase in aid for agriculture for a number of years the momentum slowed. Likewise, in developing countries, the priority that agriculture was given seemed to fade away. The work of influencing and aiding the peasantry to increase production was so much harder than urban and industrial development that it slipped down the list of priorities. If what had been decided upon then - a “doable” list of goals, according to Henry Kissinger who was the US secretary of state - had been done there would be very little hunger today and poverty would have been severely reduced.
Still, that is only a half of it. We don’t measure hunger very well. For decades we have assumed lower calories means more hunger. A new book, “Poor Economics” by Abhijit Banarjee and Esther Duflo, turns much conventional thinking on its head. Amartya Sen who won the Noble Prize for economics was dead right when he wrote that it is “a marvellously insightful book”.
“What if the poor are not eating too little food?”, they write, “What if instead they are eating the wrong kinds of food? What if the poor aren’t starving but choosing to spend their money on other priorities?”
They look at India, “one of the great puzzles in the age of food crises”. According to government statistics Indians are eating less. Per capita calorie consumption has declined. Why? Incomes are not declining, quite the reverse.
It is not because of rising food prices. Between the early 1980s and 2005 food prices declined relative to the prices of other things. The percentage of people who say they don’t have enough food dropped dramatically from 17% in 1983 to 2% in 2004. In Delhi in real terms food prices have been declining since 2008.
We have to look at this problem of hunger more deeply. Diarrhoea is the scourge of poorer peoples. But is has been an easy problem to solve. The simple use of salt mixed with clean water can resuscitate even bad cases. Hence there is less “leaking” of the food people eat and therefore less calorie-rich foods are sufficient. With the introduction of better tools and better machines- many parts of rural Africa were not widely using the wheel a generation ago much less machines- there has been a decline in heavy physical work. The widespread introduction of wells thanks to better boring techniques has meant that women do not have to walk very far carrying heavy loads of water, usually on their heads. Moreover, this water is purer and water-borne diseases are less.  Likewise, the wider use of bicycles and, more recently, motorbikes and the steady spread of cheap bus services have cut down on walking time. Even in the poorest villages in India flour milling is now motorized. In sum, less physical energy is expended and fewer calories are needed.

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The two researchers made a survey of 18 countries. They found that in the rural areas food was at the most 80% of consumption, often much less. In urban areas at the most 75%. Moreover, as poorer people get a bit more money they don’t spend proportionately more on more food.
The poor seem to have many choices. One of them is that if they get a little more money they switch from basic foods that traditionally have given them the best number of calories to better-tasting, more expensive ones. They also eat more meat, fish and sugar.
If we want to help the poor we should encourage them to eat more fruit and vegetables and iodine-fortified salt, less wheat and rice and more coarse grains and root vegetables- such as the cheaper cassava, yams, sweet and ordinary potatoes. Then the number of ill-fed would fall even faster.
The rise in rice and wheat prices in the international market place don’t tell the whole story.


Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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