World hunger revisited: the view from Peking

PEKING was the scene recently of the international community's annual stock-taking on world hunger. Ranking agricultural officials from the 36 member governments of the United Nations' World Food Council, including the United States, were joined by representatives of other governments, UN agencies, and nongovernmental groups for four days of wide-ranging discussions. Regarding hunger, the council found the issue more complex but progress more achievable now than in earlier years. This year marks the midpoint between the 1974 World Food Conference, at which the world gave itself a decade to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, and the turn of the century, when the problem will be far less manageable. Yet what is apparent now, in the words of one uncharacteristically plain-spoken delegate, is nothing less than ``world food policy failure.''

The data are indeed alarming. Hungry people have grown from an estimated 460 million in the early 1970s to well over 500 million. While recent concern has focused on sub-Saharan Africa, more children have died in the last two years in India and Pakistan than in all 46 African nations combined.

The failure of the world to feed its people, the council found, is global. True, there are notable country and regional success stories which lead some to see the proverbial glass as one-third full rather than two-thirds empty. Yet no longer does any nation, however large or powerful, control all the factors affecting its own food security. Even major food exporters like the US and the European Community are vulnerable. They, in turn, are seen to bear major responsibility for the global food disorder of the 1980s which, as one Western delegate described it, is ``very largely a creature of the economic, agricultural, and trade policies of the Western industrialized world.''

As developed countries dig ever more deeply into their national treasuries to underwrite overproducing farm sectors, they are, in the council's words, ``producing more and enjoying it less.'' US and European farm policies are resulting in more food than can be marketed, higher prices for consumers, and smaller markets for developing countries. Most seriously, low global prices discourage food-short countries from producing more food themselves. Commodity price support programs in the industrialized nations now cost taxpayers $150 billion a year, while farm foreclosures continue. World food production this year and annually through the end of the century is estimated at 150 million tons in excess of commercial demand, much of it piling up in developed countries.

Developing countries themselves are on the ropes. The international economic recession of the early 1980s has slashed their gross national products and export earnings. Meanwhile, the programs they have embarked on, with World Bank and International Monetary fund encouragement, to reduce government spending have caused additional hardship. Levels of food imports and economic aid, which might have cushioned the impact of austerity on the poor, have dwindled. Developing countries now pay more each year to service existing debts than they receive in new aid. And if developed countries have given their farmers too much encouragement, the council found, developing countries have discriminated against theirs.

Confronted by complex problems, leaders respond with communiqu'es. The Peking Declaration, which recaps the council's wrestling with these issues, will not itself eradicate hunger and malnutrition. But high-level political acknowledgment of failure in world food policy and its underlying causes may help provide a context in which constructive change can come more quickly.

World leaders are certainly right in embracing the mid-course correction they agreed upon: to place the human condition front and center in economic development policies and programs, national and international. Also encouraging is their growing perception that the only way for individual nations to ensure their respective national food securities is by doing so in concert with each other. International forums are available for putting flesh on these commitments later this year in Geneva at the UN Conference on Trade and Development and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Yet political will remains the major missing link. ``We in Africa know all the options,'' one delegate confided at the recent June conference. ``We have all the World Bank and World Food Council data. But we're afraid to make choices which affect urban food consumers and rural food producers, only to be left hanging by the international community.'' Conversely, US producers understandably resist reduced subsidies for fear of losing markets to European competitors, who apply the same pressures to their own governments for the same reason.

World hunger seemed easier to solve a decade ago when understood, however superficially, as a third-world problem of too little food and too many people. Revisited at a time when the US and other major food exporters acknowledge their own more structural role and the unsustainable costs of current policies, world hunger requires more complex and concerted action. Paradoxically, however, proliferating hunger and a keener awareness of converging interests - North and South, East and West - may help the international community honor its Peking commitment ``to win the common battle against hunger.''

Larry Minear, a staff member of Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief, based in Washington, D.C., addressed the recent World Food Council meeting on behalf of nongovernmental organizations.

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