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Marist Bulletin - Number 172


Food and Agriculture Organization

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On the 8th December 2004, the FAO presented at Rome, Johannesburg, New York, Santiago, Stockholm and Tokyo its report on The State of Food Insecurity in the World.
The evidence hits you in the eyes: hunger costs millions of lives and billions of dollars.
Brother Onorino Rota has made a synthesis of this report.

What are the most significant figures in the FAO report?
· The number of people who suffer from hunger has risen to 852 million during the period 200-2002, 18 million more than half way through the 90s.
Of these 852 million, 815 million are in developing countries, 28 million in countries in transition and 9 million in industrialised countries.
· Each year, in developing countries, more than 20 million babies are born underweight. For them, the risk of dying during infancy is greatly elevated and those who survive often suffer from physical or cognitive handicaps for the rest of their lives.
· Each year about 5 million children die of hunger: one every 6 seconds.

What are the costs of hunger?
For the first time the FAO has also stopped calculating the cost of malnutrition, not only in terms of human life, but also in economic loss. The costs that society must cover are of two types: direct and indirect.
The direct costs for the given causes of hunger amount to around 30 billion dollars, five times more than the sum given to the World Fund for the fight against AIDS, against tuberculosis and against malaria. The indirect costs refer instead to the loss of productivity and to unrealised income, not only during the life of the child, but also after. It is an awful mortgage for the future. This is estimated to be a number between 500 and 1000 billion dollars.

Why the need to invest in this sector?
Lets leave aside the dramatics of the problem and consider only one economic point of view. The resources that are invested in this sector are small if compared to future earnings. Every dollar invested can produce five to twenty times more. A State that wants to confront the future with a certain security must necessarily give priority to the solutions of the problem of hunger.

What is reality or utopia?
The war against hunger in the world is certainly long and difficult, but there are already about thirty developing countries that have taken significant steps. These countries have reduced the percentage of the chronically hungry by 25%. This suggests that by 2005 they will succeed in reaching the objective of 50%, as was decided by Heads of States and Governments in the 1996 World Food Summit. These thirty-one countries that have succeeded in reversing the tendency are a message of hope.

What are the techniques that these countries have adopted?
Certainly there is no one recipe, but the FAO asks each individual country to work in two directions:
· To fight the causes and the consequences of poverty and of extreme hunger. In this first instance, interventions are foreseen to increase the availability of food and to raise the income of the poorest people by increasing their activity.
· To organise programmes by degrees to give immediate and direct access to food to those families most in need. In this second phase, the programmes that promote agriculture and rural development become very important, as it is on these things that the majority of the poor and the hungry depend for their own subsistence.

What difficulties are met?
Unfortunately there is a model of development from the west, heavily exported by the multinationals that brings more damage than advantages. The increasing domination of supermarkets has produced a greater choice, more convenience, higher quality and security of food for the urban consumers. The other side of the coin is the exclusion of the local farmers as suppliers.
Carrefour, the largest supermarket chain in the world, has opened an enormous distribution centre in Sao Paolo, Brazil, which serves fifty million consumers. Carrefour buys melons from only three producers in the Northeast for all the Brazilian stores and for all of its centres present in twenty-one countries in the world.
The same thing occurred between 1997 and 2001 when seventy-five small milk producers were cut out by twelve large cheese manufacturers. Also in Asia, in less than five years, the leading supermarket chain in Thailand has reduced its supply of vegetables from 250 to 10. The standards of quality and reliability require investments that, without government intervention, are not sustainable by single growers. There are also very good initiatives in this sector.

Finally there is globalisation
The urbanisation of masses of the poor and the globalisation of the food system have redesigned the profile of malnutrition. In China 33% of adults who lived in cities had a diet that contained 30% of calories derived from fats. From 1991 to 1997 the percentage of calories derived from fats rose to 61%.
Under indictment is also the American fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) that opened its first store in Peking in 1987 and now manages 600 other places. Not all the poor can access fast food, but it is certain that this new reality fosters a change in diet and also the rise of illnesses that were not known before. The cause: abandoning a diet that had a high content of vegetable fibre.

What are the greatest obstacles for solving the problem of hunger?
There are crisis and conflict situations that negatively affect development. Without wanting to enter into a political debate, it is evident that in areas afflicted by conflict situations poverty and hunger increase. Another element that has negative effects would be natural disasters.

Is it possible to indicate the areas of major suffering in the world?
The areas greatly affected by the crisis are the regions of the Great Lakes, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Sudan… We need to say, however, that in other countries significant progress has been noted due to political stability. There are many problems but the basis for an authentic development is being created.

This has been a synthesis of the report presented at Rome and the debate that followed between Hartwig de Haen, Vice-Director of the Economic Department of the FAO, and the Ambassadors Manfredo Incisa di Camerana and John Danforth.
To be aware of these phenomena is only the first step in a long and difficult journey that also includes personal choices of restraint. But surely, if we want this FAO report to be more than lifeless letters we have to take action at the society level and demand from those who govern us a precise commitment to social justice outside the confines of our own countries.

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