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Food insecurity: the human tragedy of hunger

By Michael Swan

The Catholic Register: a special report

12/03/2014

I’ve lived in Toronto most of my life, studied in New York and my beautiful wife is from Sao Paulo. I have also visited London, Paris, Rome, Beirut, Beijing, Hong Kong, Jerusalem and Nairobi. All of these places are famous in some way for their food.

But my most unforgettable meal was about 15 years ago in a village whose name I can’t remember. It was in the hilly interior of Nicaragua, in a school building that had lost its roof, windows and doors to a hurricane that had flattened the village.

That’s where I and the regional representative for a small agricultural organization were served chicken, rice, bread, corn and coffee on a small desk that had likely belonged to one of the teachers. All around us in a circle, at a distance of about three metres, were the villagers — every man, woman and child — watching us.

The regional organizer for the Development and Peace-supported NGO told me, “Just eat. If you don’t eat they will be insulted.”

The chicken, which today in Toronto would be called “free range organic” but in Nicaragua was just a chicken, was flavourful in a way that should make your local grocer ashamed to sell those counterfeit fowl wrapped in plastic. The fresh bread was a marvel. The coffee was substantial and aromatic. But every time I looked up from my plate I saw hungry people.

The village was dry and the land all around was harder than asphalt. The hungry Nicaraguans who watched me eat their sacrificial meal (they had sacrificed one of their precious chickens and their best ingredients for my dinner) were farmers. Their little plots were entirely at the mercy of the rain. Any system of irrigation would require resources and expertise they just didn’t have.

Those farmers typically started their day with bread and coffee, went into their fields to scratch at their concrete soil, then came home to bread and coffee, maybe some corn.

Among epidemiologists and development experts, the condition of those Nicaraguan farmers is called “food insecurity.” It’s also called hunger.

They are one small part of a vast, far-flung nation of the hungry. There are 842 million people in the world who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, including 805 million who don’t have enough food to maintain normal health and activities, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program.

Those numbers represent about a 17 per cent improvement over the last 25 years, but it’s hard to take comfort from nearly a billion human beings struggling to feed themselves and their children.

If 161 million children under five have their growth stunted by hunger, and 51 million more have low weight for their height because of acute hunger, and two billion people lack the iron, iodine, zinc and vitamin A necessary for normal health, it’s hard to feel good about the progress of the last generation.

Most Canadians think we should do more. An Ipsos-Reid survey for Canadian Foodgrains Bank and its Catholic partner Development and Peace found 61 per cent of us think Canada should do more to help farmers in the developing world. More than half said they would donate money to help make it happen.

The strides made since 1990 haven’t registered with most Canadians. Even though the world is on target to meet its No. 1 Millennium Development Goal to reduce extreme poverty and hunger to half the 1990 level by 2015, 42 per cent of Canadians don’t think we’ve made any progress and 39 per cent think the situation is getting worse.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where 30 per cent of the people, almost all of them rural, are chronically hungry, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa estimates between 25 and 50 per cent of farm crops rot in the field and tens of millions of dollars’ worth of milk becomes spoiled. African farmers, 80 per cent of them women, lack storage systems, timely access to markets, even roads to take their harvests to town.

Pope Francis has called on Christians to address this paradox of plenty. On World Food Day, Oct. 16, the pope, quoting St. John Paul II, told the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “There is food for everyone, but not everyone can eat, while waste, excessive consumption and the use of food for other purposes is visible before our very eyes. Unfortunately, this paradox remains relevant. There are few subjects about which we find as many fallacies as those related to hunger; few topics as likely to be manipulated by data, statistics, the demands of national security, corruption or futile lamentation about the economic crisis. This is the first challenge to be overcome.”

In other words, we talk too much and do too little.

Pope Francis has endorsed the Caritas Internationalis Food for All campaign, which demands total elimination of hunger by 2025, and has called on all Catholics to participate in it. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Canadian arm of Caritas, is participating with its Sow Much Love campaign. Internationally, Development and Peace is in about 20 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, working with more than 100 partners. But a food system that feeds everyone is also about the choices urban, middle-class Canadians make at the grocery store, said Development and Peace’s director of in-Canada programs Josianne Gauthier.

“We can make little choices here in Canada by buying local as much as we can, whenever we can,” she said. “It’s not about depriving ourselves of small pleasures. It’s about knowing where the food comes from and knowing how it’s produced, knowing who produced it. You make a responsible choice by supporting a local farm here in Canada and you’re encouraging a whole approach to life, which is that we should be making food to feed ourselves and not just to sell it.”

Local/global

It’s unfortunate that some people associate organic, locally sourced food with fashionable, bourgeois, elitist politics, said Gauthier. Organic food is an up-market choice in most grocery stores, and Development and Peace recognizes not all families will be able to make those choices. But organic, small-scale, local farming simply represents a normal, straightforward approach to producing and delivering food.

“Local family farming actually feeds most of the planet right now,” said Gauthier. “It’s only in the richer, wealthier countries now that we actually consider this a luxury choice to have to go out of our way to get local food.”

Making those local and organic choices even just some of the time could create consumer pressure in favour of a less industrial model of agriculture, she said.

“We know family farming is more efficient,” said Gauthier. “Although it uses more people because it’s less industrialized, it uses better the land and is more productive and yields more and yields better food — more nutritious, more diverse.” Those are the types of farms Development and Peace is encouraging in its overseas partnerships. Investing in small-scale farming is the “single biggest opportunity” to reduce hunger, according to the United Nations. That means working with communities to establish seed banks, provide training, improve access to arable land, support co-ops and defend local populations against such threats as deforestation.

Development and Peace promotes small-scale family farms as a means of lifting people out of poverty. But for family farms in the Global South to flourish they need access to markets, preferably in their own countries. That means reimagining an industrialized, globalized food system that regards food as a commodity to be traded and speculated upon. One way to oppose food globalization and encourage family farming in the Global South is to support small-scale local farms in Canada.

“I never really thought of farming as activism — to have a farm and hold the land and save your seed,” said Elizabeth Stocking.

But over the last seven years the Stocking family has made growing food and selling it at farmers’ markets into a kind of witness for their faith. Elizabeth’s sons — Luke, Niall and Adrian — have all at some point made Catholic social justice a part of their daily existence. The boys grew up on a hobby farm outside of Uxbridge, Ont., that Adrian and Niall have turned into the Willo’ Wind family farm.

Running a few acres of mixed farming isn’t going to change the world, but it does inch Canada’s food system in a different direction, said Luke.

In India, the Jesuits in West Bengal are talking about alternatives to the global food system in terms of human rights. Jesuit Father Irudaya Jothi heads up the national Right to Food campaign. It pressures the state and national governments to enforce India’s National Food Security Act, which is supposed to guarantee that nobody dies of hunger. A 2001 Supreme Court of India decision put the onus on governments to ensure the poor are fed.

The trouble is that as efforts are made to divert food surpluses to the poor, Indian law runs afoul of World Trade Organization rules that promote international competition.

“The World Trade Organization twists the Indian hands so tight they may have to amend the law,” Jothi wrote in an email. “We need the support of developed nations like Canada with a human heart.”

Poor, rural Indians starve despite plenty, Jothi said.

“India produces enough food for every citizen of the country,” he said. “As the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘The world has enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.’ ”

Jesus made an even more direct connection between faith and food.

“Take and eat,” Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper.

There is no communion without food. And our communion remains incomplete so long as some do not eat.

 

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