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Fewer People May Be Going Hungry, but Extreme Hunger Persists


Turkana farmers in Kenya
The British aid agency gives cash payments to people, above, in a Turkana village, Loiturerei, in Kenya to help them cope with drought. Eradication of hunger is one of the world's biggest problems.

With the start of a new year, the eradication of hunger remains one of the world’s biggest challenges. Despite decades of aid work and development, overall world hunger remains at a serious level, and 20 countries have alarming or extremely alarming levels, says the Global Hunger Index for 2012. At the top of the list for most extreme levels of hunger are Burundi, Eritrea and Haiti. Some of the countries that have made gains in decreasing hunger are Ghana, Turkey and Vietnam.

The index was created by Concern Worldwide, Welthungerhilfe and Green Scenery with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which is part of a broad consortium of governments, foundations and other groups called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. The first three organizations research food security and poverty and provide support to countries dealing with these problems. Their index, covering 120 countries, measures undernourishment, child mortality and the percentage of underweight children. Although the index has fallen 26 percent since 1990, severe hunger persists in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

With climate change causing droughts and higher temperatures, the risk of hunger could even increase 10 to 20 percent by 2050 if countries maintain the status quo in terms of policy and agriculture.

“The stark reality is that the world needs to produce more food with fewer resources,” the report says. It was written by researchers at the three institutions that developed the hunger index.

Factors that lead to global hunger include poverty, political instability, limited access to land, water and energy and the marginalization of certain social groups.

“Hunger is a development problem and there is no silver bullet to eradicate it,” Klaus von Grebmer, a senior research fellow at IFPRI and a co-author of the study, wrote in an e-mail to PassBlue. Because there are so many intertwined causes of hunger, the response must also be multifaceted, von Grebmer said.

In India, for example, the economy has grown enormously in the last decade, but inequality for women and lack of universal education have prevented hunger relief programs from being more successful.

“When working with women, you need to take a holistic approach because women bear all these burdens,” said John Coonrod, executive vice president of the Hunger Project, a New York group that fights hunger by empowering women in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. “If you go with one intervention or another, you’re not addressing all the issues and it won’t really be sustainable.”

Although hunger is a serious global concern, there is cause for hope. Since 1990, Latin America and the Caribbean and Southeast Asia have reduced their Global Hunger Index scores by 44 and 46 percent, respectively. Their successes have come partly from economic growth and an increased amount of land dedicated to agriculture. In Tanzania, where 80 percent of people rely on agriculture to support themselves, a program that gives farmers legal certificates documenting their right to land has helped alleviate some risk of hunger.

Whether the world continues to see a decrease in the levels of hunger depends largely on the actions taken to promote more sustainable agriculture and limit the impacts of climate change. The Global Hunger Index report predicts two possible futures: in the first, social conditions and farming technology stay the same; in the second, new technologies – like strategies to increase soil fertility and alternating wet and dry rice fields – are put in place to help farmers grow more using less land, water and energy.

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The projections for the status quo scenario are grim: by 2050, 52 percent of the population, 49 percent of grain production and 45 percent of gross domestic product will be at risk because of lack of access to water. The number of malnourished children will increase 21 percent in this time, and greenhouse gas emissions will rise.

In the sustainable scenario, many of these problems are avoided through investments in new technology, improved governance and reduced inequality. Using an approach that addresses social justice issues and environmental protection, the report estimates grain yields could be 35 percent higher by 2050 compared with the other scenario.

But whether the world is prepared to tackle all these problems at once is another question.

“There are many things to be done that can help deal with climate change impacts, but I would say we are not at all on track,” said Bruce Campbell, the director of the climate change, agriculture and food security program at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

“We need a global climate change agreement that ensures finance is available for poorer countries to adapt,” Campbell added. “We need major investments in R&D, such as in heat tolerant varieties[of seeds], and better ways of getting seasonal forecasts to farmers.”

The hunger report points to other specific strategies to achieve more durable agricultural practices, including ending subsidies for fuel and fertilizers and following guidelines laid out by the United Nations Committee on World Food Security for the management of land, forests and fisheries.

“Will progress be fast enough? That’s a great unknown,” Coonrod said. “But in this business, you have the duty to be an optimist. There’s a lot of cause for optimism, but there’s no room for complacency.”

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Lorraine Boissoneault is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, with a magazine concentration. She has reported on immigration issues, public housing and the waterfront environment, and her articles have been published in The Brooklyn Paper, City Limits and Narratively.

Boissoneault is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she earned a B.A. in international studies and English/creative writing. She speaks French and conversational Mandarin and has studied Arabic and Italian.

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Fewer People May Be Going Hungry, but Extreme Hunger Persists
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