One in eight people, or 12.5 per cent of the world’s population, is chronically undernourished today says the latest State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) report. The grave ethical and practical implications of this abominable statistic from the three Rome-based United Nations agencies are obvious. Not least because mass hunger is a man-made phenomenon. Historically, hunger and starvation have been caused not by shortfalls in food production but rather by distortions in commodity markets, deficiencies in distribution and political inaction. We also know the long-term effects of chronic malnourishment on maternal and neonatal health and developmental outcomes among children. That said, a positive finding from SOFI is that the number of malnourished people has declined overall in the past two decades. So the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of the hungry and malnourished in developing countries by 2015 is still within reach, provided governments initiate effective intervention. But progress has by no means been uniform. Asia and Latin America are on track to meet this target, while Africa has fallen behind due to regression in Sub-Saharan Africa. The proportion of the malnourished in South Asia has in fact increased from 32.7 per cent to 35, while South-Eastern Asia has seen a nearly 50 per cent decline. Fiscal hawks who tend to view public investment in basic services as an impediment to growth ought to take notice of this contrast.

Indeed, the key message in the report is that economic growth by itself is not sufficient to eradicate hunger and malnourishment (just as relatively modest growth is not an excuse for poor nutritional results). Among the remedies proposed are a greater impetus to agriculture, where most of the poor are concentrated, and nutrition and gender sensitive policies. It lays particular emphasis on the public provision of goods and services in health care and sanitation for the most needy. The world financial, food and fuel crises of 2007-2008 have eroded the nutritive gains achieved in earlier years, says the report. But the impact may have been an indirect one of the negative influence food price spikes exert on dietary choices. A common refrain during the recurrent food crises of recent years has been that small-holder farming, rather than large-scale land acquisitions by giant corporations, must be strengthened to protect the worst affected. Policy and decision-makers would do well to remember this. Equally, the costs and benefits of the diversion of food grains and feed for the production of biofuels cannot be overlooked, especially since the jury is out on the latter’s environmental effects.

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