Local solutions against global hunger

Mere redistribution cannot overcome food crises in poor countries. Real solutions must begin on the ground, not in the West.

Technically, the issue of undernutrition is solved: The world produces enough food to ensure that every individual on earth has sufficient calories for a healthy diet. Nevertheless, nearly 15% of the world’s population continues to be undernourished. Since food is distributed by income, a common first reaction is to solve the hunger problem with redistribution. “Make the West eat less and give the excess to Africans”. That is not a practical solution.

Voluntary changes in consumption

One frequently hears the assertion that “ethical consumption” – usually this means vegetarianism or less meat in the diet – would “free up” grain used in meat production to feed hungry humans directly.

This line of thinking is wrong. If people spend less on food, and simultaneously spend more on (say) really expensive hair treatments, the world economic system will respond by producing less food, and more hair treatments. Farmers will respond to lower food prices by saying, “Let’s produce what people want to buy; let’s get out of farming and move to the city where we can join the burgeoning hair treatment industry.”

It is not sufficient for you to change your own food consumption. You need to make an affirmative decision to buy food that will feed the poor. If you want to have an impact, you need to reduce your own consumption, donate the savings you made and then hope that this money is effectively used to feed the hungry. But let’s be honest: We’re not that generous. We already know how to make donations but we don’t make them, since we prefer to spend money elsewhere.

Policy-induced changes in consumption

Europeans spend about €200 billion a year on travel outside their home countries. There are 200 million undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa. We could adopt a policy that forces Europeans to stop taking foreign vacations and use the money to provide €1000 to each hungry person in sub-Saharan Africa.

The problems with a proposal like this are so obvious that I have trouble writing it with a straight face. Europeans would not accept such a draconian limitation on their individual liberty. And how would it be implemented?

And if European governments somehow were successful in collecting the funds, how would they be distributed? Through the (possibly corrupt) national governments of the African nations? Directly to the undernourished? That would provide an incentive for individuals to deliberately get themselves classified as undernourished.

The practical path to a solution

Any workable solution must include two complementary elements: general economic growth to increase average per capita incomes in poor countries as well as crop yields.

Over the past 50 years, Asian countries have demonstrated incontrovertibly that growth in per capita incomes reduces the prevalence of undernutrition. But economists cannot provide a clear roadmap to economic growth: There are debates over the effectiveness of foreign aid, and over what constitutes constructive globalization. Also, there is but no clear understanding of how to implement better institutions to facilitate economic growth.

The steps needed to improve crop yields are well understood, but again – implementing these steps, such as new crop varieties and production methods has not always been easy.

Success is possible. The prevalence of undernutrition in Asia dropped from 41% in the early 1970s to 16% 35 years later; the prevalence of undernutrition in Ghana has dropped from 27% to less than 5% over 15 years. Still, let us not fall for the easy promises of solving the world undernutrition problem through redistribution alone.

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