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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 Crisesisa 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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