Hunger Isn't History
On the road toward fulfilling the Bono-endorsed slogan, "Make Poverty History," the world has hit an unexpected speed bump: prosperity. India's expanding auto industry puts 4,300 new cars a day on already-crowded streets. Oil-wealthy Russia has doubled its meat consumption since 2000. Brazil's sizzling economy is growing its use of steel at a faster rate (over 20 percent this year alone) than nearly any other nation. China has increased its consumption of eggs by a factor of ten in recent years.
Globalizing markets and economies have created new winners: Russia, China, Brazil, and India. The 2.9 billion people in these four nations are driving demand for consumer goods to levels the global economy has never seen before. In 2001, the financial press began using the acronym bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) to denote the emerging $13.8 trillion powerhouse. The prosperity of these economically booming nations has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
But there are also new losers—nation-states living on the dark side of the new prosperity. It is worse than just grinding poverty. One expert whom Christianity Today spoke with estimates that worldwide, 25,000 people die each day of hunger-related illnesses. Most of these preventable deaths occur in regions with no oil, insufficient food, and unending conflict.
This new reality comes after 45 years of steady progress in global food production. Last year, for example, there was a record production of 2.3 billion tons of grain. But production has been unable to keep pace with demand. Grain stockpiles are at 30-year lows. Globally, 850 million people are chronically hungry. Experts cite the following reasons:
- Failed harvests. Since 2006, multi-year drought, cyclones, and other natural disasters have dramatically cut harvests in some food-exporting nations. A six-year drought in Australia's rice-growing region, for example, has caused its harvest to plummet.
- Rising fuel prices. Demand for new oil and gas sources has triggered price spikes, thus increasing the cost of food production. Despite a recent decline from the $147-per-barrel peak this July, oil prices are still 60 percent higher than they were in 2005.
- Increased demand for grain. About 100 million tons of grains and oilseeds are being diverted to produce biofuels every year. China and other developing nations are annually using millions of tons more of imported corn, wheat, and soybeans to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens.
In the words of Tony Hall, Christian hunger activist, former congressman, and former U.S. ambassador to the UN World Food Program, these factors have combined to create a "perfect storm" for global hunger. "We have never had all these things come together at one time," he said. In the past 18 months, the price of basic foods has skyrocketed. Experts estimate nearly 100 million poor people have moved from a subsistence lifestyle on $2 a day to $1 a day to cope. In Afghanistan, this $1 gap is the difference between living on a diet of bread and tea, and living on tea alone.
The past 12 months have been a roller coaster of gyrating prices, droughts, flooding, and food scarcity. In 2008, food riots and protests—in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, and Haiti—made global headlines.
In Haiti, 78 percent of the population lives on $2 a day or less. The Caribbean nation imports more than 50 percent of its food, while many Haitians use 75 percent of their already-meager incomes to purchase food. After rice prices doubled this spring, riots erupted, killing five people. The government reduced prices by offering a 15 percent subsidy. But this fall, four tropical storms, including hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike, claimed the lives of another 330 people. Storm damage made food aid even more difficult to deliver, placing millions of Haitians at greater risk of malnutrition and starvation.