Hunger may be one of the most serious and least understood of all world problems. Many people believe that hunger is the result of a lack of available food, which is a myth that is perpetuated by many well-meaning news organizations. Discussions of famine and drought make it seem as if hunger occurs because there is simply not enough food to feed people. The reality is that worldwide food supplies significantly exceed worldwide food demand. Moreover, even in those countries with excess food production and the means to distribute food to starving people, people starve. Instead, there are a multitude of causes of the world hunger problem: poverty, free market economics, large land ownership, food exports, diversion of land to non-food production, foreign aid, and last, but certainly not least, misconceptions about the causes of poverty that perpetuate, rather than alleviate the problem.
Without discussing the other pros and cons of a free-market capitalist approach to asset distribution, it is important to recognize that a free market economy is one of the driving factors behind global hunger. "As the market responds to money and not to actual need, it can only work to eliminate hunger when purchasing power is widely dispersed…As the rural poor are increasingly pushed from land, they are less and less able to demand for food on the market. Promoting free trade to alleviate hunger has proven to be a failure. In most developing countries exports have boomed while hunger has continued unabated or actually worsened" (Knight). In fact, even in free trade countries with high export rates, hunger continues to be a problem. The fact is that increasing global trade also has the result of increasing economic disparity within the country. While trade pushes some people into a higher socioeconomic status, it also hurts those who are most vulnerable, while simultaneously driving up prices because of an increase in demand due to greater discretionary spending power in the higher socioeconomic classes. The result is that people being increasingly too poor to purchase food.
In fact, under the free market system food is not simply food, it is a commodity. Understanding this distinction is critical. According to Richard Robbins, "To understand why people go hungry you must stop thinking about food as something farmers grow for others to eat, and begin thinking about it as something companies produce for other people to buy. Food is a commodity" (Robbins). Viewing food as a commodity helps explain not only why not all hungry people can get food, but also why certain crops are grown, even if they are inefficient to grow. Looking at crops as a commodity helps one understand that, "agricultural producers choose to grow, not only what people will and can buy, but they grow things for which they will get the best price" (Robbins). For example, the farming of meat is very inefficient in terms of food resources and uses a tremendous amount of grain, but it is profitable, so grain is diverted from the human food supply to feed livestock. Furthermore, the people who are so impoverished that they cannot purchase food are marginalized in a manner that leaves them voiceless in the demand side of supply and demand; they do not have the financial resources to change demand and, thus, pressure commodities growers to produce affordable food supplies.
In fact, focusing on the growth of crops for export helps drive poverty, and, therefore, hunger, in third world nations. "Sometimes, the cost of the food produced can be more than what the local people can afford and has to be exported to earn cash. Land and labor is therefore diverted away from immediate needs" (Madakufamba). This can result in local food shortages because resources have been diverted from local crops to crops for export. "Additionally, the local food growers are then subject to the fashions and preferences of external communities and market demands. If they no longer like the range of products as much, the entire local economy could be affected. The banana trade in the Caribbean is an example of this." (Madakufamba).
Another factor that contributes to global hunger is the diversion of farm land to non-food production. The main non-food crops produced in this manner are coffee, tea, flowers, sugar, and tobacco. All of these crops require significant land resources but contribute nothing to the food resources of a country. The tobacco industry may be the most significant culprit in the non-food use of agricultural land, with estimates that is leads to the denial of food to between 10 and 20 million people (Madeley, p.53). Furthermore, the introduction of tobacco to poor companies, where they have aggressive marketing campaigns, diverts financial resources from food to tobacco and decreases health, which increases poverty, and therefore decreases the ability to buy food.
One of the interesting ways that land is diverted to non-food growing purposes is through the building of dams. Dams are not necessarily non-productive uses of land; they can be invaluable resources to a country. However, is it important to realize that dams very rarely threaten to take the houses and property of the wealthy; instead, proposed dam projects target the lands of the poor. "Every year, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, around four million people were displaced from their homes because of hydro-electric damn schemes. These schemes usually created huge reservoirs which flooded homes, forests and fertile land. ... Since the electricity generated by the damns was intended to power factories and houses in urban areas, few of the rural poor benefitted from such schemes" (Madeley, p.115). Moreover, while many dam projects are financed by foreign aid, the costs often exceed projected costs and most be borne by the poor residents of these overdeveloped countries, which increases poverty. The result is that dam projects generally transfer wealth from the impoverished to the wealthy.
What the above makes clear is that foreign aid is not always positive, because it often is based upon myopic views of what will actually assist the people in an area. Instead of being an alleviating factor, foreign aid is a contributing factor to world hunger. The idea of foreign countries intervening to end global hunger is an appealing one, but it has been counterproductive, because what it actually exports is the idea of that Western agricultural policies can or will solve the problem of global hunger. Instead, foreign aid promotes exports and food production, but those two things do nothing to increase the ability of the poor to purchase food.
In fact, many people believe that one of the greatest obstacles to solving the world hunger problem is that people have so many misconceptions about the causes of hunger. For example, some people attribute global hunger to the population explosion, which leaves policy makers with few options for dealing with the problem. Instead, because policymakers think of the world's resources as insufficient to feed the world's current population, they view hunger as inevitable, and therefore do not look for innovative ways of solving the food problem. Instead, they buy into the idea that food scarcity is the problem and search for ways to increase food production. However, food production, on its own, will do nothing to alleviate hunger because food production is meaningless without changing the way of distributing that food to people. This idea is reinforced by the notion that impoverished countries like India, Mexico, and the Philippines have increased their grain production without solving their hunger problems (Knight).
Because a lack of food production is not the problem, encouraging current big-agriculture policies is not a solution to the world hunger problem. One cannot ignore the fact that hunger is a major problem in countries that have a history of colonization, and the roots of that hunger can be traced to colonial appropriation of land that, in many cases, was not held by private owners prior to colonization, and certainly was not held in large sects. The colonizers equated land ownership with control over production and profits from production. As a result, they redistributed land to themselves, "eradicating millennia-old traditions of common use. Since custom is a form of ownership, the shared use of land could not be permitted" (Smith, p.44). Allowing for common use would threaten title to the land. Therefore, "much of the land went unused or underused until the owners could do so profitably. This is the pattern of land use that characterizes most Third World countries today, and it is this that generates hunger in the world." (Smith, p.44)
Large landowners and big farming generally result in underutilization of land resources; small farmers tend to receive four to five times the output per acre as large farmers (Knight). They are also more likely to use sustainable farming methods, decreasing the need to allow land to be fallow. Therefore, redistributing land from large farms to small farmers might be a significant way to help alleviate hunger, but the thought of doing so undermines the capitalist ideal of large production.…