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Development: Starved for solutions

Calestous Juma weighs up a call for a revolution to end world hunger.

Betting on Famine: Why the World Still Goes Hungry

The New Press: 2013. 9781595588494 | ISBN: 978-1-5955-8849-4

Some 870 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment, despite humanity's best efforts to improve agricultural productivity, create markets and boost nutrition. In Betting on Famine, sociologist Jean Ziegler sets out to provide a human rights-based approach to addressing world hunger. The book is a sweeping indictment of global injustice and provides ample facts and figures. “The destruction, every year, of tens of millions of men, women, and children from hunger is the greatest scandal of our era,” says Ziegler, who was United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on the right to food from 2000 to 2008.

Food is handed out at a hospital in the Central African Republic. Credit: TON KOENE/DPA/CORBIS

His main thesis, which is in no way innovative, is that the world is capable of feeding 12 billion people — 5 billion more than now exist. The main obstacle, in his view, is global inequality and corporate control of the food system. The solution, he says, is to return to the fundamental principles of the right to food, defined by the UN as having “regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people”.

Ziegler argues that access to food has been one of the most flouted human rights in history. He attributes much of the reason for this to the dominance of the private sector and an unfair global trading system, underpinned by what he sees as neo-liberal dogma, such as the perceived benefits of privatizing public enterprises. He argues that nothing short of a revolution is needed to curb corruption among leaders in emerging nations most affected by famine, promote popular resistance among social movements around the world, and make the right to food a policy priority in parliamentary and other governance bodies.

Betting on Famine disappoints for many reasons, one being that it says nothing new. Classics such as Susan George's How the Other Half Dies (1976) have provided more incisive assessments of why famine has persisted despite increases in food production. Ziegler admits that much of what needs to be done has already been outlined in numerous UN documents. Furthermore, his book is primarily a diatribe against those in power; it offers little by way of example or inspiration on how to solve world hunger. Appealing to revolution is possibly the easiest of intellectual expeditions. Executing the task is much more complex and requires the involvement of the same corporations and governments that the book incessantly admonishes.

There is an equally revolutionary alternative that Ziegler does not acknowledge: empowering the poor by building their capacity to address hunger through improved agricultural practices, training of farmers, better infrastructure and access to markets. Following the 1974 coup in Ethiopia, for instance, Marxist leaders embarked on a peasant revolution aimed at overthrowing landowners in the hope that this would lead to the modernization of agriculture. It did not work. But now the country's government focuses on promoting and expanding cooperation between farmers and the same corporations that Ziegler wishes to send to the gallows. Partly because of improvements in agricultural production, Ethiopia's economy has registered an average growth of 8% per year in the past decade.

Rights cannot be wished into existence. They need institutions to become realities.

Rights cannot be wished into existence. They need institutions to become realities. In 2010, Ethiopia created the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), mirroring elements of Brazil's Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), which has helped to bring technical support and credit to farmers. The ATA focuses on empowering farmers to become more entrepreneurial by helping them to improve productivity and participate in local and global markets. Ethiopia is also now a member of the Grow Africa consortium, which includes private enterprises, the African Union and the World Economic Forum, and has pledged to invest more than US$3.5 billion in African agriculture. China, India and Brazil, among other countries, are also actively tackling hunger with more inclusive approaches, accommodating all major players including private corporations.

Ziegler rightly emphasizes the role of farmers, but fails to note how technical training can strengthen their political influence. Innovations such as the US land-grant university model, formalized 150 years ago to bring agricultural research, teaching and extension under one roof, played a key part in educating US farmers. The Green Revolution that helped countries such as India and Mexico to avert major famines relied heavily on scientific research, participation of the private sector and the upgrading of farmers' skills.

The right to food will continue to be a major global challenge as pressure on natural resources increases. But solutions will not come from traditional appeals for popular uprisings. They will come from increased inclusivity in partnerships, involving rather than punishing private corporations. To feed the hungry, the world needs new approaches that expand the practical use of human creativity, not more pleas for hollow revolutions.

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Correspondence to Calestous Juma.

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Juma, C. Development: Starved for solutions. Nature 500, 148–149 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/500148a

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