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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Debunking the Myths About Hunger

Air Date: Week of

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States estimates that every day 800 million people do not get enough to eat. (Photo: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

In their new book, World Hunger: 10 Myths, Frances Moore Lappé and coauthor Joseph Collins make the case that there’s plenty of food to go around, but it’s just not getting to those who need it most. Lappé and host Steve Curwood discuss how tackling inequality and expanding democracy can feed the world.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. 800 million people. That many face chronic hunger today and every day, as reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Of course, humanity has faced famine for thousands of years, as rains failed and crops and animals died, as pests – or hungry neighbors - invaded, or rulers demanded more than could be produced. But we live in the 21st century now, a time of plenty and international bodies designed to relieve global suffering, yet hunger persists. Forty-five years ago, Frances Moore Lappé proposed a solution to the never-ending crisis of widespread hunger in her book Diet for a Small Planet. In her latest book "World Hunger: 10 Myths", she and co-author Joseph Collins link hunger to inequality, writing that democracy can feed the world. Frances Moore Lappé joins us now. Frankie, welcome back to Living on Earth.

MOORE: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: So, how should we really be counting hunger?

Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins teamed up to write World Hunger: 10 Myths, which asks why so many in our world still go hungry despite an abundance of food. (Photo: Small Planet Institute)

MOORE: Typically, what we hear and about all we hear is about the yearly count from the food and agricultural organization of the United Nations, and that count is based on calories alone, and to be among that 800 million roughly now, you have to have experienced hunger for more than a year. In other words, if you are calorie deficient for three months between harvests, but not over the year, your calories average out to adequacy, then you're not counted. The real point here is that this official count is about calories alone. And we live in a world in which calories and nutrition are parting ways. And if you look at it that way, then you have to look at the World Health Organization, for example, who tells us that two billion of us are deficient in at least one nutrient essential to health. For example, one out of five maternal deaths is related to iron deficiency. So we make the case that the world should be focused on what we call nutritional deprivation, and that includes both calorie and nutrient deficiency.

CURWOOD: In your book, you describe hunger as having emotional dimensions that often go unnoticed. Why is recognizing these as part of hunger important?

MOORE: Well, hunger, when you are hungry, you experience it in at least four basic human emotions - the emotion of anguish, of not being able to know how to choose between feeding your children today and paying the landlord for the land that you need to feed them tomorrow, or the grief of watching your children die. As we know now, half of all child deaths are linked to malnutrition. Another emotion is humiliation because often people are blamed for their own poverty. And finally, the emotion of fear, especially today as we see land grabbing throughout the world. By land grabs I mean people who have been on their land with customary rights to it for generations, suddenly have it taken away, often by a foreign corporation coming in. Basically as long we think of hunger in terms of quantities, we will miss asking ourselves when we have ever experienced these emotions - anguish, grief, humiliation, fear - and if we understand ourselves connected to those four emotions, then we see of course, hunger is about powerlessness, hunger is about people lacking voice in the most essential questions of their lives.

Lappé and Collins began working together in the 1970s and founded the California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) in 1975. (Photo: Small Planet Institute)

CURWOOD: Your book is titled, "World Hunger: 10 Myths". The first myth you list is too many people, too little food. Why do you see this notion of food scarcity as a fallacy?

MOORE: Well, the truth is today, there are 2,900 calories produced for every person on Earth, and I think that's enough to make most of us quite chubby, so scarcity is not an absolute reality. In fact, our highly increasingly concentrated food system ends up creating the experience of scarcity by depriving people of access to food and also by shrinking it. I'd like to say that that abundance of which I just spoke, that is only on the leftovers, Steve; that is what is left over after we feed about a third of all grain to livestock, after we feed most of our soy to livestock, it is after a tremendous amount of waste as well - direct waste - and if you look at that, you see how wasteful it is. For example, of all the feed that cattle consume, we eat in the flesh that we humans consume, only about three percent of those calories that were in the feed that the cattle got, right? So that is another way of seeing how grossly inefficient our food system is.

CURWOOD: Why in your view is population not a cause of hunger but really a parallel issue associated with inequality?

Women farmers in India, including those in the oppressed Dalit caste, are forming collectives that enable them to share seeds and engage in sustainable cultivation practices. (Photo: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

MOORE: Yes, I'd like to say that hunger and continuing population growth are symptoms of the same problem, the democracy deficit, a lack of real say over our lives. That is what continues population growth. In that chapter we cite so much evidence where population has slowed, where women are gaining a voice over their lives, where women are gaining employment and education, so that if we want to bring population into balance with our Earth, we can't just rail against high fertility, we must address its roots and that is largely empowerment of women but also greater equity for all of us.

CURWOOD: Let's look to the global south for a moment. How can empowering small farmers, especially women in peasant economies, drive the shift towards greater food justice.

MOORE: Well, they are. They are driving the shift. Can I just take you to one village I visited not too long ago in rural India?


MOORE: It was life-changing for me because I sort of felt everything that I've been talking about all these decades, Steve, I saw it alive in these villages. As I sat with women who are the lowest caste, they're called the Dalit group. And a few decades ago, they described their lives as ‘dark’. They kept using that word. They said they lived day to day in fear of hunger, fear that they couldn't even get a few cups of grain to cook from their landlord for dinner, that sort of dependency, they were humiliated, they were often beaten by their husbands. So, it was ‘a dark time’, they said, and then, a couple of decades ago, they began to move away from their dependency on subsidized white rice and on chemical agriculture, and I think there was a small revolving loan involved in this, a minimal amount of help that would have been returned, and they moved in the direction of biodiversity. That means, I saw in the fields, I saw 20 crops in one field, with a full nutritional complement, from lentils to greens and oil seeds. And they meet every week, groups of women in their villages and they decide together how to best to use their lands and share them. And this is part of a wider movement in southern India so it involves maybe two million farmers now.

CURWOOD: Great story. The second myth you set out to debunk is the notion that climate change makes hunger inevitable. Well, given the enormous contribution that agriculture does make for climate disruption, explain how it's possible to reduce both carbon emissions and hunger.

MOORE: Yes, it's a very fine line we walked in writing this chapter. We do not want to underestimate the impact of climate change on farming, and we want to make sure that we don't give an inch of excuse for humanity to say, oh, well, we could never solve the hunger problem because of climate change. We stress how much now chemical agriculture in particular contributes to climate change. It's estimated that up to 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions are from the food system as a whole and most of that from agriculture, and we then make the case that as we move in the direction of what the women in India I just described are doing - agro-ecological farming - that actually the food system can contribute to the solution because organic farming or ecological farming can hold much more carbon than chemical farming does. And ecological farming releases from one-half to as little as one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions compared to chemical or industrial farming. So there's a real advantage in moving in this direction.

Agroecological practices like composting are helping small farmers worldwide keep their fields healthy. Here, a couple of farmers in Malawi show their compost material. (Photo: Find Your Feet, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: You also explore the myths that we need industrial agriculture - synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, pesticides - to feed the world, that organic and ecological farming can't do it. So, why is it that industrial agriculture, why isn't the Green Revolution the solution to world hunger?

MOORE: Well, what I want to clear up to listeners right away is the myth that somehow that ecological farming can't yield enough, can't supply enough food, and there are now multiple findings, one that came out in 2007 by researchers at the University of Michigan that said actually, if we move to organic farming, we could have enough food without adding new land to feed the current population and the population growth that is expected. But there are multiple studies that say the same thing, and it's particularly true, Steve, in the global south, yields are way below what is possible with this knowledge we have now. You see, the knowledge of agroecology is growing very fast. It's building on traditional understanding of working with the soil organisms but it's also advancing fast because it is building on the latest scientific findings. We now know that we can greatly increase yields in the global south. One study that looked at 55 countries projects of agroecology in the global south found that on average in these projects an 80 percent increase in yields using these methods like compost which most people know what that means now and keeping the soil covered with cover crops. So these are techniques that can be learned, that can be shared, and farmers can be supported as they're make this transition to this healthy path.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about the developed world and hunger. To what extent does the power to create a more just and sustainable food system rest on the diets of consumers in the developed part of the world, versus governments, corporations and NGOs?

MOORE: Well, you know that I began back with "Diet for a Small Planet" with this delight in realizing that actually what I eat every day ripples out and determines whether our land use, etc., is efficient or terribly inefficient. So, for example, three quarters of all agricultural land, including pasture, goes into livestock production but they return to us just 17 percent of our calories. So the more that we choose a meat centered diet, the more damage we do overall in terms of climate change or just creating waste and the kind of problems of dead zones in the waterways created by fertilizers. My strong sense is that we see ourselves more and more through this ecological lens of being all connected to one another in this journey. And that's why I'm so excited about what I see as a growing democracy movement in this country, that many in the environmental movement are stepping up, too. They're seeing those linkages, they're not separate. Democracy, environment and hunger are not separate issues.

CURWOOD: Frances Moore Lappé, why do you think humanity needs hunger? In other words, we have this in our society, in our civilization. It's really pervasive, it's been around for a long, long time. What purpose does it serve, do you think?

MOORE: Well, I like to remind us that actually we evolved as food sharers, that in our tribal origins where we spent most of our evolutionary time, the hunter who went out and was successful didn't just come home and share it with his family, that this was a village asset and food was shared. And we moved away from that toward unequal societies of top-down control. And we are now, I believe, just arising out of that primitive state to understand the capacities of human beings such as the Dalit women who were once considered the lowest caste, absolutely worth nothing, and they are now leaders in the world, so this notion of concentrated power is necessary for humans to survive and protect ourselves, that has been our undoing, that we've fallen for this mental trap.

Frances Moore Lappé is the author or coauthor of 18 books, including Diet for a Small Planet, which has sold more than three million copies. She is the founder of the Small Planet Institute, which she leads with her daughter, Anna Lappé. (Photo: Small Planet Institute)

CURWOOD: Frankie, at the end of your book, you discuss the idea that expanding freedom and democracy is ultimately the means of ending hunger. Elaborate on that for me please.

MOORE: Well, as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to reclaim freedom from the notion of freedom as this individual push away everybody else, just give me elbow room to realize that in fact, freedom means our capacity to develop ourselves, our capacity to unleash our natural gifts and that involves us with others, so I like to define freedom as the opportunity for all us to get the education we need, to have opportunities for working at a livable wage so we can support our families. This is real freedom, and I love to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt on this when he said, "Necessitous men are not free men," and he also made very clear that we cannot have peace in our world, let me underscore, at a time when I see fear shooting up in our own country. We cannot have peace in the world as long as we have people who are poor and insecure. He understood that and that has been the framework that I have tried to build on in my own work, and that freedom is our capacity to realize our gifts and therefore connect with others and have the opportunity, all of us, to fulfill ourselves.

CURWOOD: Frances Moore Lappé is a prolific author, including "World Hunger: 10 Myths" and "Diet for a Small Planet". And co-leads the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Frankie, thanks for taking the time with us today.

MOORE: Thank you so much, Steve.



From untouchable to organic: Dalit women sow change in India

FAO Hunger Map

Frances Moore Lappé and coauthor Joseph Collins’ op-ed, “Rethinking hunger”

Hunger and climate change

About Frances Moore Lappé

World Hunger: 10 Myths


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