Why World Hunger Won't Go Away

Two new books and a docudrama ask hard questions about how so many can still go hungry in a world of technological advancement and economic growth.

Dinner's served: Bruno Parmentier's "Zero Hunger, Ending Hunger In The World"
Dinner's served: Bruno Parmentier's "Zero Hunger, Ending Hunger In The World"
Philippe Arnaud

PARIS — José Graziano da Silva, director general of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently said that "hunger leads to conflict, and conflict exacerbates hunger."

Three very different new books examine the global agriculture situation, the reality of agribusiness, and the pressing need for new regulations of what can be called the "global food system."

Though the situation is slightly less critical than in 2008, a year that saw food prices soar, hunger still affects 850 million people around the world. Bruno Parmentier, author of Zero Hunger, Ending Hunger In The World, connects that number with another one, the 1.46 billion people who are overweight.

To this expert on agricultural affairs, hunger is neither a technical nor an economic problem, in the strict sense of the term. "Hunger is first of all political," he writes. "It has always been the consequence of ignorance, war and the absence of state, of conflicts to gain control of natural resources. And now it's also a by-product of globalization and the absence of public control over multinational companies."

But the essential message of Zero Hunger is optimistic. Yes, it is possible to eradicate hunger in the 21st century. The Zero Hunger Challenge launched by the United Nations in 2012 at the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development is "within our reach." There are solutions. They include defending small family agriculture, developing techniques of agroecological production, targeted support, etc. Parmentier advocates an "ecologically intensive" agriculture model that is more productive, sustainable and economical.

Some countries are moving in the right direction — for example, China, Vietnam and Brazil. India, however, is stagnating and others are actually regressing, such as sub-Saharan African countries. The book also describes the overconsumption of meat as one of the most formidable challenges. Between 1980 and 2012, annual Chinese consumption of meat rose from 14 to 60 kilograms. In France, it is over 80 kilograms.

Concrete solutions

How to End Hunger in Times of Crises is a book written by two FAO economists — Ignacio Trueba, professor emeritus at the Technical University of Madrid, and Andrew MacMillan, a specialist in in tropical agriculture. They write that mentalities must change. "We maintain that one of the main reasons why so many people are undernourished is that most people think it's difficult to end hunger," they write. "And yet, it's one of the easiest things we could do together to make the world a better place for its inhabitants."

This slim, accessible volume offers several concrete solutions. Some go against the tide of the status quo. They include a tax on overconsumption to reduce waste, especially on products with a large ecological footprint, favoring rising prices to improve farmers' revenues and therefore investments, or developing education approaches that will translate to lasting changes in how we live and eat.

The book also contains precise figures. For example, one billion global inhabitants lack about 250 calories per day, which represents less than 2% of the world's food production. Meanwhile in Europe, each person throws away an average of about 100 kilos of food every year.

The two economists believe the important thing is to reduce the future growth of overconsumption. They underline a point that we too often forget: Our intensive agricultural system depends too much on the use of fossil fuels, making it unviable in the long term.

Finally, after the "docudrama" format used on History television networks and Bernard-Henri Lévy's 2003 "investigative novel" Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, comes a published economic documentary theater play. In Seeds, Annabel Soutar, a Canadian playwright, tells the famous story of the lawsuit filed by Monsanto against a farmer in Saskatchewan, in western Canada. In 1998, the company sued Percy Schmeiser for violating its patent on genetically modified canola seeds, the Roundup Ready Canola. The trial lasted six years, and the verdict went nobody's way. The court ruled in favor of Monsanto, but Percy Schmeiser didn't pay any damages. In the meantime, "the man who stood up to Monsanto" became a global figure.

According to the author, much of the play's dialogue come from transcripts of court proceedings but also interviews and excerpts from newspaper articles. It's a difficult topic to tackle, touching on the ethics of science but also on multinational companies' thirst for profit. The point of view is not Manichaean. The play is not a new version of David vs. Goliath. It was created in Montreal and got very good reviews, but only time will tell whether economic docudramas are here to stay.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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