What Can We Do About the Rise of Hunger and Unrest?

How to feed the near 8 billion people on Earth?

Posted Jan 25, 2011

Nothing destabilizes individuals and countries faster than hunger. In recent years, strain in the global food chain and soaring prices has ignited social unrest far beyond the mere the shock felt by US consumers at the check-out counter. The rise of hunger has spilled into the streets driven by emotions of anguish and helplessness as food riots have erupted in over 60 countries including some of the largest or deadliest in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Niger, North Korea, Pakistan, Senegal Somalia, South Africa, Tunisia, Yemen.

A conversation in December with Lewis Ziska, PhD, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, quickly turned to his research and what he sees as our greatest challenge--to be able to feed the near 8 billion people on Earth in conditions of elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide and the effects of extreme weather brought on by Global Warming. He warned, "Taking into consideration the worldwide increase of monoculture", the mass production of one single crop, "without diversity, we are increasingly vulnerable to the likelihood of a food related ‘Black Swan'* episode, an event, or convergence of extreme weather events so massive it would change everything. In 2010, extreme heat and drought devastated Russia's wheat crop; Mexico and the southwestern United States also experienced the worst drought in 50 years. Conversely flooding destroyed a fifth of Pakistan, while Canadian harvests were damaged to excessive rains during cereal planting. The net result of all these events has been an unprecedented surge in cereal prices and food insecurity." The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food insecurity as when "people live with hunger and fear starvation."

Dr. Ziska brought my attention to the FAO's United Nations Food Price Index (http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/FoodPricesIndex/en/). Indeed, index graph shows food staples have tripled over the last three years. The FAO reports that there are 1.2 billion people in the world today that are not getting enough food to stay healthy, which Columbia University's Earth Institute translates into 1 in 7 people on the planet malnourished or hungry. However, the FAO also reports that the world currently produces enough food to feed everyone. So what's the problem? Some food insecurity comes from lack of access to food in part from higher transport costs, but primarily-it's poverty. Millions of people around the world are struggling to make ends meet and can't afford to buy the food they need, and with the global economic recession, inflation and rising unemployment, these numbers are rapidly increasing.

We are on the edge of a global food crises and world-scale positive actions must be implemented. Dr. Ziska advises that in 2011, "We need to focus on food security. We must do more, faster. We need to adapt our crops and diversify the agricultural species."

This is an opportunity for Americans to become more aware of their habits and live more sustainable lives. Changing habits changes the mind patterns and changes the mind. We can stop wasting food and stop spending millions on weight loss products. We can support local farms and donate to relief agencies such as the U.N. World Food Program, CARE and OxFam America. Hunger has many implications for the 21st century. As was discussed at the Global Symposium of Peaceful Nations that I attended in Washington, DC in March of 2009, severe food mismanagement can lead to world conflicts. Riots bring down governments. Without peace we cannot solve the global scope of the problems humanity faces. Hunger is a crisis that affects everyone.

Two websites that include strategic analysis for actions to address food insecurity are the FAO at: http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/ and the Foresight project where a recently published report out of the UK, on Global Food and Farming Futures can be reviewed at: http://www.bis.gov.uk/foresight.

* Referring to Nassim Nicholas Taleb's theory and book about the phenomena and impact of large-scale

About the Author

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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