November , 2017
Hungry stomachs rise amidst food abundance
14:00 pm

Tushar K. Mahanti

 “February 20, 2017, the world awoke to a headline that should have never come about: Famine had been declared in parts of South Sudan, the first to be announced anywhere in the world in six years” – was how the Global Hunger Index, 2017, began its narrative.

This became a headline because the famine was formally declared suggesting that people were already dying of hunger in Sudan. Sudan declared famine and the world came to know about it but the hunger and the incidence of starvation is threatening the world almost as badly as it did when in 2000 the world leaders at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York vowed to end hunger.

This has not happened despite targets set in successive Millennium Development Goals by the UN. And the problem is not just that of the present day but of the future too. The question is: How is the world going to feed nine billion people by 2050? One out of every nine people in the world is starving. How to make this figure zero?

The answer to this question is one of the biggest issues in agriculture today. The experts estimate that the world needs to produce about 60% more food than it produces today to feed these mouths? And the world is pushing its agriculture constantly to produce more. It’s going for higher and higher crop productivity. It’s going for more monocultures and newer seeds.

Hungry stomachs on the rise

Global hunger is once again on the rise, reversing some of the progress made over the last decade of steady decline according to a new report titled “ The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017” from the United Nations published last September. The number of hungry people in the world has increased for the first time in a decade largely due to the proliferation of civil conflicts, often exacerbated by climate-related catastrophes says the report. The rural communities were hit the hardest, where crops and other basic sources of food are grown and harvested.

About 60% of the world’s chronically hungry people were in areas experiencing man-made conflict, the report says. Some 20 million people face possible famine in parts South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. In 2016 alone, more than 63 million people in 13 countries were said to face ‘severe levels of food insecurity and in need of urgent humanitarian assistance’, the report observed. Overall, 11% or one in every nine of the world’s population was hungry last year.

In 2016, an estimated 815 million people across the world were undernourished amounting to more than a tenth of the global population. The number was about 38 million or about 5% more than that of 777 million in 2015.

Children were the worst sufferers and were affected most by malnutrition. According to this report 155 million children under the age of five were under weight to their age. Another 52 million children were suffering from wasting, that is, their weight was lower compared to their height.

Owing in part to the size of its population, the highest number of undernourished people is in Asia. According to estimates of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations almost 520 million people in Asia, more than 243 million in Africa, and more than 42 million in Latin America and the Caribbean did not have access to sufficient food energy in 2016.

India’s experience

India ranked 100th position among 119 countries on Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2017 prepared by the Washington-based International Policy Research Institute (IPRI). India has slipped three positions this year against 97th rank in 2016.

The GHI report comes after the latest National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS) had already warned of three major concerns of child nutrition in the country. First, the availability of solid food with breast milk for young children declined from 52% to 42%. Second, the proportion of children between six and 23 months who received an adequate diet came down to 9.6% and the third, no more than 48.4% of households had access to improved sanitation facilities according to this report. Sanitation is an important factor in improving nutrition.

As such, India’s GHI score has improved from 46.2 in 1992 to 31.4 in 2017, but it is yet 10 points lower than the world average of 21.8. According to GHI report, one in three Indian children under five is underweight, one in three is stunted and one in five is wasted, according to 2015-16 NFHS.

“Even with the massive scale of national nutrition-focused programs in India, drought and structural deficiencies have left a large number of poor in India at risk of malnourishment in 2017” said P K Joshi, IPRI’s South Asia director.

Child wasting is one of four indicators in the GHI. In India, it increased from 17.1% in 1998-02 to 21% in 2012-16. This is way above the global prevalence: 9.5% of all under-5 children suffer from wasting.

With 21% of under-5 children suffering from wasting, the report notes that India is one of the very few countries that have made no strides over the last 25 years in checking the prevalence of this indicator. Only three other countries in GHI 2017, Djibouti, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan – have child-wasting score over 20%.

India’s pathetic performance would look further glaring when compared with its neighbours. Data from the GHI report show that India’s rank (100) was lower than that of all its neighbours – China (29) Nepal (72), Myanmar (77), Bangladesh (88), Sri Lanka (84). Only Pakistan had a lower rank than India at 106. Even North Korea (93) and Iraq 978) fared better than India in GHI rankings.

Food wastage

Back to the basic question as to how the world would feed 9 billion people by 2050 the experts are in a dilemma. May -be with constant innovations in agriculture the world would attain the needed foodgrains but to feed its people it would also require to contain wastage. For, wastage of food is a major reason for food shortage and by extension, hunger.

Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption – an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes – gets lost or wasted according to FAO. In value terms food losses and waste amounts to roughly $ 680 billion in industrialised countries and $ 310 billion in developing countries. Even if ‘just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world’ – more than those who went hungry last year – FAO has rued.

In developing countries about 40% of food losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialised countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels. In developing countries food waste and losses occur mainly at early stages of the food value chain and can be traced back to financial, managerial and technical constraints in harvesting techniques as well as storage and cooling facilities.

This exactly is the case in India where most of the food is wasted in the value chain and in storage. India wastes about 40% of the food it produces. An eye opening revelation had been made by a report cited in CSR journal that says “Indians waste as much food as the whole of United Kingdom consumes”. In a nation like India where millions still sleep hungry on streets, it’s not a good statistic.

Lavish parties and waste of food

If wasting of food in the value chain or in storage causing headache to the government, its lavish misuses is going against the country’s democratic value. When in 1995, J. Jayalalitha, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu arranged a lavish wedding for her foster son’s wedding, there was uproar across the country. Ten dining halls, each seating a modest 25,000 persons were put up with uncountable sumptuous dishes. Opposition political parties and media were busy finding the sources of fund and in the melee the moot point was missed that how such glamorous bouquet could be arranged by a chief minister amid hungry stomachs going to bed near the marriage pandals.

Since then India has seen numerous marriages with copious food arrangement bothering little about the waste that could feed hundreds. In the weddings of Sahara’s Subrata Roy’s sons in 2004 there were reportedly 110 types of dishes from across the world.

Political parties, however, have tried to restrict expenditure on marriages time and again. The Marriages (Compulsory Registration and Prevention of Wasteful Expenditure) Bill, 2016 for example, sought to prohibit extravagant and wasteful expenditure on marriages and to enforce simpler solemnization. It sought to put a limit to the number of guests to be invited and dishes to be served in weddings.

A total of six such bills were introduced in Parliament in the last 20 years. Three of these bills were introduced in the Lok Sabha and the remaining three in the Rajya Sabha. But these bills have so far remained only on paper.

And if India’s efforts to curb lavish wedding ceremonies is limited to mooting bills in Lok / Rajya Sabha China has come out more proactive. Dengzhou city in Henan province of China is trying to curb extravagant wedding and funeral ceremonies to stop food wastage locally. In a recent guideline it has proposed that the betrothal gift a groom gives to the bride’s family should be less than 30,000 yuan ($ 4500). It also called on to limit guests to ten tables each costing no more than 360 yuan, and limits the guests on the bride’s side to less than 20. And to ensure implementation of the measures, the city is establishing village-level wedding and funeral councils.

But then such lavish food bouquet is not limited to marriage parties alone. They are rampant in corporate meetings, seminars and at individual invites. May be in a democratic country such incidences cannot be stopped but all the same the wastage of food in a lavish way is as immoral as anything else.

And the magnitude of such wastage is vivid in a recent report by the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore. A team of 10 professors surveyed 75 wedding halls in Bangalore over six months and recorded a wastage of over 973 tonnes of good quality food that was enough to feed 2.6 crore people a regular Indian mill.

In an RTI reply the ministry of consumer affairs recently pegged the damaged foodgrains at 61,824 tonnes between 2011-12 and 2016-17. In 2016-17 (up to March 1) a huge 8,679 tonnes of foodgrains was damaged in FCI warehouses.

Food wastage is a universal problem, but India which is placed at the 100th rank in GHI can afford it a whole lot less than others. According to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, every third malnourished child is Indian.

How does food loss and food wastage cost humanity? First, they increase the risk of hunger/ food insecurity. Second, they result in the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas from the landfills and also contribute to food inflation. Wasting of food means loss of fresh water. Wasting a kilogramme of rice and wheat would mean wasting of 3500 litres and 1500 litres of water that goes into their production.

The curtailing of food wastage would increase the supply of food; it would also help restricting the loss of valuable fresh water and reduce its ill effect on climate. But higher supply of food will not necessarily mean reduction in hungry stomachs. For, even if there is abundance of food, a large number of poor would stay hungry. They have to buy the food which they cannot afford. That is, to reduce hunger increasing food supply alone would not do, the purchasing of the poor too has to improve.

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