A real eye-opener of an article in the Observer this week on food poverty. Various sidebars to the main article gave details of some typical meals for children in various third-world countries (including Nigeria, Zambia, India and Haiti), set out as food-magazine recipes.
For example, here’s what eight year-old Asquo Edem of Lagos eats as his only meal of the day, on a good day (on a bad day, he has no food at all and cries himself to sleep):
Plantain, pepper and bones
Serves 1 child
half a thin slice of plantain and fried pepper
leftover bones and fat (free from butcher)
palm nut oil
Slice the plantain and pepper as thin as possible. Heat oil, fry the plantain and pepper, bones and any fat. Serve hot with weak tea and powdered milk.
The Zambian child’s supper consisted basically of cereal and ash.
The article itself gives broader background information about the problem of food poverty:
You need protein and fats to survive. But in most sub-Saharan countries and much of poorer America and Asia the protein and oils part of the diet is around 20 per cent – not the 40 or 50 per cent it ought to be. Even in the most meat-heavy supper in our survey – eaten by a street family in Port-au-Prince, Haiti – 14 people shared just 330 grams of goat. And so tonight 800 million people will go to bed chronically under-fed: 200 million of them are children.
Even in comparatively rich countries like India and Nigeria, almost fifty per cent of under-fives are “so malnourished that their growth is stunted”, and “200 million children across the world are suffering from chronic or acute malnutrition”.
The article then goes on to look at the underlying causes of this widespread malnutrition across the world:
All the problems of the settled malnourished – as opposed to those displaced by war or disaster – can be traced back, quite simply, to poverty. But the causes of that are complex, and often quite new.
Here are some of these causes, as outlined by the article:
1. Trade liberalisation
I’ve generally been in favour of free trade, but it did make me pause when I read this:
…the liberalised trade rules forced on Cambodia as part of the deal to let it join the WTO has meant opening its borders to rice imports. These have poured in from Vietnam, where cooperative farming produces much cheaper rice. The price of rice in Cambodia collapsed.
And hence the Cambodian family to whom this journalist spoke is broken up (as the father goes of to Phnom Penh to try to earn some money in the building trade) and their eight-year old son given nothing to eat for his supper other than a lump of rice the size of his (under-sized) fist. The writer argues that this is typical of small farmers around the world who now find “their fragile worlds upset by economic forces far beyond their control”.
2. Western agricultural subsidies
This is the bit that made me angry. The more I think about it, the more I believe that the Common Agricultural Policy and the equivalent subsidies to farmers in North America are just plain evil.
I mean, where to begin? With the “€2-a-day cow”, with European cows each receiving more in government handouts than over a billion people have to live on each day? As the article continues:
Adding to the injury, that cow’s excess milk is then dumped abroad – an operation the EU also subsidises. As a result, small dairy farmers in countries as far apart as Jamaica and India have been put out of business.
Or perhaps we could consider European sugar, where subsidies and market restrictions benefiting producers of EU sugar – declared illegal by the WTO in April, but with no action yet in response from the EU – are estimated to have caused damage to (for example) Mozambiquan sugar producers amounting to one-third of the value of the aid that the EU annually contributes to that country.
The G8 meeting this year promised an additional $48 billion in aid to Africa by 2010, but this is dwarfed by the effect that an end to agricultural export subsidies and Western import duties on third world goods would have: earning Africa alone $269 billion per year.
Attempts to improve this situation are being held up by wrangles between the EU and the US, “neither of whom will budge on subsidy reform unless the other does”.
3. Western aid
As we’ve seen, the G8 meeting promised Africa additional aid, but did little or nothing to improve the trading position of poor nations. But quite apart from fostering a dependency culture and making it impossible for people to earn money by selling produce to rich nations, aid can be counter-productive for poor nations:
The arrival of sacks of foreign grain and rice in a famine-hit country has many effects beyond feeding the starving. For a start it can result in a drop in the market price of the same products – good news initially for the hungry, but potentially catastrophic over a few months.
After the 1997 financial crash in East Asia, Japan and America shipped huge amounts of their own farmers’ subsided rice into Indonesia, where the collapse of a government food subsidy scheme was causing shortages in rural areas. But this glut of foreign rice destroyed the market for local producers, and put tens of thousands of farmers and distributors out of business. Indonesia, once a rice exporter, is now a rice importer – to the benefit of US and Japanese farmers.
So what’s to be done? Well, as the article points out, there have been some positive changes in recent years. China saw a 49 per cent drop in underweight infants during the 1990s, and Mexico a 46 per cent reduction in the same period. The reasons for this are disputed, but the opening of these countries to global markets seems to have been part of the process.
It does seem that the situation at the moment is the worst of all worlds: poor nations are forced to open up their markets to Western imports (often of subsidised produce being dumped at a loss), while tariffs continue to hamper attempts for poor nations to export produce and other goods back into rich nations (US tariffs on imports from Bangladesh average out at 14%).
So perhaps there is something to be said for what the likes of Oxfam call “pro-poor trade”: deliberately tilting the balance of trade rules back in the direction of poor nations, rather than insisting on a supposedly “level” playing field.
The article concludes that there is no simple answer to this problem. Even though there is enough food in the world to feed everybody, the idea that this is simply a problem of supply is “impossibly idealistic”. Nor is vegetarianism a solution, despite the suggestion that too much food is currently fed to livestock. One analyst quoted in the article argues that “Vegetarianism may be OK for kids in the very best conditions, but I can’t see that it’s a good thing for the poorest”. And population growth and climate change could make matters significantly worse over the next few years.
However, one Oxfam worker pointed out that there are still things we can do to alleviate hunger:
“It’s as simple as a mother in Bangladesh selling the bananas from the trees behind her home. Her children need to eat them, because they badly need the potassium and the vitamin B6. But she has to pay the money-lender back for the cash she borrowed when her son was in hospital. Don’t tell me that sorting out Bangladesh’s macro problems – the debt, the trade issues, the bad aid and the corruption – won’t help that family.”
This special feature on food poverty was followed by an article on British eating habits, illustrated by photographs of the popular beat combo Girls Aloud! having a badly-staged food fight.