Struggling against starvation in an age of plenty

By Simon Barrow
May 21, 2011

Christian Aid Week focuses on vital fundraising for the global work of the UK-based churches' international development agency, and its many indigenous partners across several continents.

But there are also significant opportunities for raising awareness of key concerns - such as food, commodities, population and poverty.

Christian Aid's new report spells them out in some detail - focused on 'Fighting Starvation In An Age Of Plenty' (

By 2050, there will be another 2 billion mouths to feed as the world population soars to 9 billion. The facts are startling:

* 3.5m children under five in developing countries die from malnutrition-related causes every year.
* The UK consumes 85kg of meat per person on average whereas in India it’s just 3kg.
* 925 million people are chronically short of carbohydrates, fats and protein, and it is estimated that another billion suffer from ‘hidden hunger’, where while populations are not starving but short on vital vitamins and minerals in their everyday diet.
* Overfishing by Taiwanese and Thai factory ships off the coat of the Horn of Africa drove local fishermen to piracy, the beginnings of the now regular hostage taking and extortion demands.
* In parts of Asia, rice paddies are being used to farm fresh water prawns, but this pollutes the land and so after a few seasons it is useless for both.


Food is now a financial commodity, to be traded and bet against just like any other, such as copper and oil.

Global crop yields grew by 115 per cent between 1967 and 2007, but the land used only grew by eight per cent, taking the total to 4.6bn hectares. A hectare is 10,000 square metres so that's 4,600,000,000 hectares, or 46,000,000,000,000 square metres. This is equivalent to 153 countries the size of Italy, which is 30 million hectares.

Global water demand could rise by 35-60 per cent by 2025, and even double by 2050. At current levels, agriculture consumes 70 per cent of global clean water, so the expected shortages make the risk of regional conflict over supplies more likely.

Thirty countries experienced rioting as a result of unprecedented food price rises from 2005 – 2008.

Goldman Sachs’s made an estimated $1 billion profit in 2009 from its commodity index fund.

The International Food Policy Research Institute predicts that by 2025, water scarcity will result in the annual loss of 350 million tonnes of food – equivalent to losing the current global rice harvest.

Between January 2005 and June 2008, the rise in prices of foods such as maize, wheat and rice meant an average rise of food prices of 83 per cent. As a result, the numbers living in extreme poverty increased by 150 million.

By March 2011, food prices were just three per cent below the 2008 historic highs, rising by 29 per cent in the course of a year. A further 44 million people since the middle of 2010 have been forced into extreme poverty, surviving on the equivalent of just $1.25 a day.


The relationship between war and hunger is as old as humankind itself. War causes hunger, and hunger causes war. 166 million people live in places said to be in ‘protracted crisis’ by the UN.

The inhabitants of Gaza have been living under a virtual siege since Israel intensified a blockade in 2007. Today 80 per cent of the population need food aid.

It is more than 30 years since there was peace in Afghanistan, during which time an array of different forces have been at war with each other. Its diverse terrain allows for many different crops, and it was once renowned for its fruit exports. Today, however, more than half of children under the age of five are malnourished.

In 2010, 27.5 million people were displaced within countries by armed conflict, generalised violence and human rights violations, according to the UN’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Land grabs

The large-scale acquisition by foreign interests of agricultural land in developing countries is a growing global phenomenon.

In theory, the wave of investment could benefit people living in poverty by providing infrastructure and jobs. But from the evidence of what has happened so far, their interests count for little. As governments quietly allow control of vast tracts of land to pass into powerful and wealthy hands, sometimes for the next 100 years, existing inhabitants are all too often forced out, and environmental concerns ignored.

In late March this year, Bloomberg reported plans by Saudi Star Agricultural Development plc to invest US$2.5bn by 2020 in rice farming in Ethiopia. The company ‘leased 10,000 hectares in Ethiopia’s western Gambella region for 60 years at a cost of 158 birr (US$9.42) per hectare annually, Chief Executive Officer Haile Assegide said in an interview on March 18,’ reported Bloomberg. It also ‘plans to rent an additional 290,000 hectares from the government’

World Bank figures show how the demand for land to grow biofuels is increasing. It estimates that between 2004 and 2008, the total amount of land devoted to biofuel crops such as maize and sugarcane, for instance, doubled to 36 million hectares. This is considerably bigger than the size of Italy, which is roughly 30 million hectares.


Bananas! In 2007, the Guardian newspaper published its breakdown of every pound spent in the UK on bananas. 40p of the £1 was the supermarket’s ‘costs’ and declared profit in the country of sale, 47p went to offshore bodies in Bermuda, Jersey, Ireland, Isle of Man, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands, for distribution, management, use of brand, insurance, financial services and purchasing. 1.5p went to the workers in the country of production, with 10.5p for other costs and 1p as declared profit. This breakdown was compiled in association with Christian Aid partner the Tax Justice Network.

Even though Guatemala is one of the most populous countries in Central America, with nearly 14m inhabitants, just 0.003 per cent of Guatemalans – 195 people – own 50 per cent of the country’s total bank deposits, according to ICEFI. More than half the population earn less than $2 a day.

Climate change

In Peru, the country’s glaciers have receded by nearly 20 per cent in the past four decades, meaning less water for Andean farmers’ crops and animals. In Bangladesh, the rising sea level is contributing to the increased salinity of ground water, damaging crops and forcing women to walk miles in search of water fit for drinking.

And around the world, there has been an increase in the frequency of severe tropical cyclones attributed primarily to high temperatures caused by greenhouse gases.

It is a bitter irony that climate change caused by humans is having its greatest impact on countries that bear the least responsibility for the carbon emissions that have created the problem in the first place.

The UK Met Office predicts that if emissions remain at current levels, the global temperature in 2100 would have risen by five degrees Celsius.

A one degree rise in average temperature will reduce yields across two-thirds of Africa’s maize-growing areas, even without a drought, according to Stanford University.

The Deccan Development Society believes that 80 per cent of farmer suicides are related to outstanding debts after borrowing money to invest in bore holes that dry up within a year. Farmers don’t realise that there isn’t enough water to go around.

The demography of food

‘By 2050 the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion, 34 per cent higher than today. Nearly all of this population increase will occur in developing countries. Urbanisation will continue at an accelerated pace, and about 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, compared to 49 per cent today. In order to feed this larger, more urban and richer population, food production must increase by 70 per cent.’

How to Feed the World in 2050: Food and Agriculture of the United Nations (FAO).

Sustainable solutions

Support for smallholders is key to preventing hunger.

Seventy per cent of farmers using conservation agriculture get a 30 – 50 per cent yield increase.

In addition to the positive impact on yields, reliability of food production and income, low-external input agriculture has clear benefits for the natural resource base upon which long-term food security ultimately depends. The benefits can be seen in the following areas: improved soil health, reduced irrigation demand, increased biodiversity, land rehabilitation, crop resistance to pests and diseases and lower future greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainable farming also provides increased opportunities for collective action within farming communities. Although it does not automatically confer negotiating or political power on them, the most successful examples in Africa and Asia do involve a strong element of institution-building. This process may involve strengthening forums that already exist at the village level or the creation of entirely new institutions.

Some examples of collective action are: community-managed seed selection, storage and exchange – rules and customs are required to operate these systems, participatory seed breeding, credit and savings groups, farmer field schools and people’s organisations and networks – for disseminating knowledge about techniques, direct marketing groups and cooperatives, water user groups.

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Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He was a member of the Christian Aid Theology Group from 2002-2005, in behalf of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.