Of Many Things

Oct. 16 is World Food Day—the founding date over half a century ago of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But in view of the starvation that is claiming many lives in the poorest countries, Oct. 16 might more appropriately be called World Hunger Day. During a late-summer trip to Washington, D.C., I had occasion to speak with someone who knows the situation well—Martin McLaughlin, whose timely book, World Food Security, was published there earlier this year by the Center of Concern (www.coc.org). Both in his book and in our conversation, Mr. McLaughlin emphasized the painful irony that although enough food is produced worldwide to feed everyone adequately, too little of it reaches the residents of many developing countries—especially in Africa.

 

Much of the blame, he said, can be laid at the doorstep of the big transnational corporations, driven as they are by profit motivation rather than concern for the common good. Along with the financial institutions and governments that support them, half a dozen of these corporations essentially determine world food policy. As Mr. McLaughlin writes in his book, “the dominant corporate interests...employ squadrons of lawyers and lobbyists to prevent or distort regulation and pursue their [own] interests.” Their types of structure, he adds, are incompatible with Catholic social thinking, stressing as it does the interdependence of all members of the human family.

Sadly, the rich countries, he said, “out-eat by a margin of roughly four to one the nearly one billion people who cannot afford to buy or grow an adequate supply of food.” Indeed, a painful reflection of the present imbalance in food distribution is seen in the high levels of overconsumption of food in industrialized nations like the United States. Mr. McLaughlin quotes in his book the World Health Organization’s finding that “overeating is the fastest growing form of malnourishment in the world,” leading as it does to obesity-related health problems. The billions spent by advertising companies to encourage overconsumption has helped create a whole industry devoted to weight loss.

At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, the world’s leaders pledged to reduce by half the number of the world’s hungry people by the year 2015. Based on statistics from the F.A.O., though, Mr. McLaughlin observed that at our present slow rate of reducing hunger and food insecurity, it would take far longer—till 2066—to achieve this goal. What is needed, he said, is a change of direction on the part of the institutions that drive globalization, namely, private corporations, banking and government groups. But such a change, he emphasized, can only take place through a level of political will that so far has not been brought to bear.

In addition to economic causes, other factors, too, have impeded progress toward the goal of cutting hunger by half. Among these—especially in Africa—AIDS ranks high. Mr. McLaughlin noted that it is killing off whole generations of young people, including farmers, in what would otherwise have been the most productive years of their lives. Civil conflicts have also taken their toll, leading as they do to the destruction of crops and the sowing of land mines in fields, which thus become not only useless but life-threatening. There is also the issue of spending scarce funds on weaponry at the expense of needed human services, including food resources. Whatever the causes, those who have suffered most from food deprivation continue to be children and elderly people. Lack of nourishment stunts the former in their development and can mean premature death for the latter.

The 1996 summit reaffirmed what was stated four decades earlier in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” namely, that all human beings have a fundamental right to be free from hunger. We are still far from making this right a reality. It need not be that way. Mr. McLaughlin can be reached at [email protected]

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