It’s difficult to look at the photographs. They are almost stereotypical. An African child sitting in the dust, worn out by despair, painfully thin. The human suffering in Africa is overwhelming. It tugs at our hearts, perhaps inspiring us to open our checkbooks. Hunger is not, however, just an issue in developing countries. It’s a problem the entire planet shares.
According to census data released September 13, 2011, the poverty level in the United States has risen to 15.1%, the highest since 1993. This translates to 46.2 million people living below the poverty line in the United States. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that 14.5% of US households lacked access to adequate food for everyone in the home at some point in 2010. The statistics for global hunger are even more appalling. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), the percentage of undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa was 30% in 2010.
There are many different proposals to alleviate world hunger, but broadly defined there are basically two methods that produce raw food products:
(1) Industrial scale operations typically run by big corporations using expensive machinery and chemicals to produce large amounts of consistent, relatively cheap food.
(2) Small farms typically run by families using labor intensive methods to produce a usually more expensive but superior crop.
Big companies have the capital and the ability to borrow funds to purchase expensive farm equipment and substantial tracts of land that can be used to produce massive crops quickly. In theory this food could feed millions of hungry people. Is large scale agriculture the solution to world hunger? The capacity to produce food does not automatically guarantee access to that food. If a family is living under the poverty level, very little is left to spend on food after basic housing needs have been met. It really doesn’t matter how much food is available for purchase in these situations because there just simply isn’t enough money to buy adequate food.
Paul Collier, Professor of Economics at Oxford University, disagrees. In an article in the New York Times, published April 15, 2008, he argues that even though the family farm is more romantic than a huge conglomerate, the food crisis the world is facing needs to be addressed with technology and innovation, not romanticism. He points out that the US and Europe are “rich enough to afford such folly”, but Africa is not. “In Europe deep-seated fears of science have been manipulated into a ban on both the production and import of genetically modified crops.” This is regrettable in Mr. Collier’s opinion, but not catastrophic in an area of wealth. He states “Africa definitely cannot afford this self-denial. It needs all the help it can possibly get from GM [genetically modified] drought-resistant crops”.
Small scale farming operations don’t have anywhere near the production capacity of their mega sized counterparts. Subsistence farms in developing countries, many of which are run by women, sometimes even fail to meet the needs of the family that runs them. Is it reasonable to believe that small scale farms can produce enough food to feed the rapidly growing world population? Some scientists believe it’s possible. For example, Christos Vasilikiotis, Ph.D, University of California, Berkley, states in his paper on organic farming, “Counter to the widely held belief that industrial agriculture is more efficient and productive, small farms produce far more per acre than large farms.” He points out further that “Even in the United States, the smallest farms, those 27 acres or less, have more than ten times greater dollar output per acre than larger farms
Not all small scale farmers are good stewards of their land and animals. Not all large scale farms have a complete disregard for the environment. What about the safety of our food? Is small scale production less likely to produce food that carries the bacteria that cause food borne illnesses? There are probably as many approaches to food production as there are farms. What is the answer?
Some experts believe that the solution lies in a combination of both ideologies. If large scale agricultural operations were to become more aware of the environmental impact of their activities and more sensitive to the needs of small farmers, perhaps a compromise of sorts can be made. An Oxfam Research report concluded that in order to feed our growing world population, several policies had to be implemented, including encouraging synergy between small farms and large industrial operations. The report also encouraged more support for small farm owners and regulation of large agricultural operators to “enhance social benefits and good environmental stewardship”.
My goal next year is to educate myself in an attempt to understand the complexities of our food supply. I know that the answers to world hunger are complex, but I may be able to identify steps that an individual can take to help in some way. At the very least, if I can understand the issue better, I can avoid being a part of the problem and perhaps maybe even become a part of the solution. I don’t want to look at those pictures any more without trying to help in some way.Posted in She Loves | 11 Comments »