The Scandal of food insecurity’… commonly known as hunger

By Najma Sadeque

Published in You!The News on Sunday, January 20, 2013

Around 15 years ago there was a major international UN conference in New York at which women from all over the world gathered, attended mainly by activists, NGO workers, researchers and such. A colleague and I arrived late the night before. In keeping with a modest budget, we were staying at an adequate but no-frills hotel that served no meals but included a kitchenette in our room. It was no time to go hunting for groceries; besides we were terribly hungry. The reception gave us directions to the nearest delicatessen where we could self-serve. But we had to hurry; it was almost midnight.

We arrived on the dot to be shocked by the sight of the staff dumping the remaining unsold food into large pails for throwing away.

We requested to be allowed to purchase some food, before they threw it all. The answer was a rude no; it was closing time. We explained that we had not eaten in 12 hours and really needed some sustenance. No, said the attendants unsympathetically. But how do you lose, I persisted; you are going to throw it all away; we will pay for what we take. I could hardly believe what I was saying: I was pleading for food, and not even for free. The answer in a raised, irritated voice was: please leave, we are going to lock up.

This was not some fancy restaurant, just a simple take-away from where greater understanding was expected. But no, that sort of empathy was normal in South countries, not in New York, a key centre of a grossly wasteful and overfed country, within walking distance of the UN building where such callous attitudes were not on the agenda. Afraid they might roughly push us out if we got more insistent, we left. We found out what it was really like to go to bed hungry.

Elsewhere in the world at the time, over a billion and half people were either starving or malnourished; seemingly not many in America, since it didn’t hit any headlines.

True, the municipal rules required left-over food not be retained for sale the next day, but did it have to be discarded when there were so many poor and hungry, even in New York? Couldn’t it be delivered to or collected by some charitable organisation? When we related our story to some local participants, we learnt that there were some churches and soup kitchens that gladly accepted leftover food for the poor, but not every establishment was great-hearted enough to have it delivered on a daily basis. And most would-be recipients could not afford the cost of transporting it over themselves. Nor were there any Edhis here.

It is a different story today. Last year alone, the US, going through an unprecedented economic and social crisis, spent over 48 billion dollars on food stamps for its poor or unemployed citizens who don’t have any or enough money to buy food with. But the food crisis in most of the South countries – where there was no such thing as food stamps – is much, much worse.

In 2009, Tristram Stuart created a sensation in the western world when he released his book titled ‘WASTE: Uncovering the global food scandal’. But little of it was reported in the South where most of the hungry were. Even though, the mind-boggling waste could have fed two billion hungry and underfed and malnourished in the world, mainly women and children. – In collusion, of course, with many South governments.

At that time, the US was responsible for over 40 per cent of total food waste every year, and between 25 and 40 per cent in the UK, although 35 million were suffering from food insecurity in the US alone, and 43 million were at risk in the European Union. Since the overall global food waste has ballooned to 50 per cent.

The UN has called for waste to be halved by 2025. But that is too long a wait; by then hundreds of millions more will be dead from hunger. If governments acted responsibly, they could turn things around in a few years.

With half our people starving or badly-fed, why is Pakistan – and other South countries – exporting food to the west? Shockingly, the food wasted is not so much due to an expected degree of spoilage or during shipment or other delays – those figures are not included here. This has to do with hundreds of millions of tons of fresh food such as fruits and vegetables, as well as processed or frozen foods such as cooked food, red and white meats, and seafood, crisscrossing the world, the quickly-perishable exports being transported by air.

Part of it is grown in the industrialised world where unwanted excess is left to rot in the fields after the harvest. But most of it is exported fresh from the poor and developing countries where vast numbers don’t get enough to eat. A lot of it is processed in the west before being put on sale. But there is far more on offer than gets sold, so much so, they are removed from the shelves long before the printed date of expiry … merely to make room for the next consignment of the same or similar items!

The discarded items are thrown into dumpsters or in the backstreets where the poor, or simply the practical-minded, delightedly scoop them up and dine for free including on items such as cakes, pies, pasta, cocktail sausages, croissants, milk and yogurt, sandwiches, chocolates, and much, much more, even caviar and shrimp. This may seem worthwhile if unintended boon for the western poor, but it isn’t within physical reach of all. The system is clearly suffering from overproduction and excess imports. Supply is not matched to demand, and it comes at huge cost to the poor.

Startling photographs abound of dumped foods, not only outside major retail stores such as Marks and Spencers and other supermarket chains but also shops in small towns and villages. Of miles of unwanted oranges or tomatoes in America or Europe, right up to the horizon, left to rot, although these could be respectively converted into juice and paste. And still, more oranges and tomatoes are imported to be eaten fresh or converted into processed forms! It is quite difficult to understand the logic.

Today, three years after the book appeared and was followed by more updated reports issued by the UN and other international NGOs, most governments of developing countries have done nothing to improve the state of hunger which they and the UN euphemistically call “food insecurity” – probably because it takes the edge of the stark picture of starvation that governments find embarrassing.

In industrialized countries, more than 40 per cent of losses are due to retailers and consumers discarding perfectly good, edible food. Whereas in most developing countries, over 40 per cent of food losses occur after harvesting, while being stored or transported, or during processing and packing.

It takes two to clap hands, and the problem began with vested western interests, in league with governments of developing countries. Despite the fact that traditional, indefinitely sustainable agriculture is the single largest source of self-employment and near full-employment in the world, especially for women for whom a self-cultivated quarter-acre can make all the difference between family food self-sufficiency and starvation, successive governments have repeatedly placed the cart before the horse.

The goal of the global cartels is to eliminate country self-sufficiency and peasants as entrepreneurs, and to turn the entire world into a single consolidated market and resource bank controlled by them – already partly achieved – and replace smallholders with corporate farms and agri-businesses, using only seasonal, cheap, underpaid and exploited, non-permanent workers – the ‘Mexicanisation’ of rural labour.

Drastic land reform can change all this, which is probably why feudal political parties and feudalised urban parties don’t reveal or discuss these facts with voters.

 The alarming paradox of hunger vs. obesity

‑For the one billion people who are hungry, there are another 1.5 billion people considered overweight or obese.

‑For each person who suffers from hunger, two people eat too much.


Report of The Barilla Centre for Food & Nutrition

Why Pakistan should stop food exports for now

A staggering one-third of the food produced for human consumption – 1.3 billion tons per year – is lost or wasted. Last year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report on ‘Global Food Losses and Food Waste’ revealed that 222 million tons of mixed food is wasted by the industrialized countries alone, each year.

In a world of 7 billion, there is enough food to feed 9 to 11 billion people. But it doesn’t reach the starving. Why then are we exporting food to an overfed world when our own hungry need to eat?

In the developing South countries, reports Tristram Stuart in the ‘State of the World 2011’, 150 million tons of grain is lost annually – or six times the amount needed to meet the needs of all the hungry people in the South.

At year’s end (2012) in Europe, almost 50 per cent of fruits and vegetables were uneaten and wasted. Eurostat data (2006), listed 89 million tons as annual food waste, equal to 180 kg per capita, without including losses during production and harvesting stages in Europe. This was high compared to 110 kg in Great Britain, 109 kg in the United States, and half or less than half for several individual European countries – Italy, France, Germany and Sweden. In the developing countries, food waste or loss per person is trifling: between 6 and 11 kg per person, and it is usually recycled into compost.

Now consider the flip side of this state of affairs.

Last month, a new report in the British medical journal, ‘The Lancet’, warned that obesity had become “a bigger health crisis globally than hunger, and the leading cause of disabilities around the world.” Evidence covering a decade was provided by nearly 500 researchers from 50 countries in the ‘Global Burden of Disease’ report. With the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, all countries contributed to an increased global average of 82 per cent in obesity in the past two decades.

Apart from Americans, the Middle Easterners are among the most obese, which given careless spending of oil wealth is not surprising, thanks to, among other things, western processed junk foods and lifestyles. The large-scale industrial system of agriculture has led to another 2 billion people affected by food-related diseases like obesity and diabetes. This, it has been calculated, will cost a lot more – in the tens of trillions of dollars – to correct, than feeding the hungry of the world!



About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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