Not by Bread Alone

Wider Strategies Urged in the War on Hunger

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ROME, OCT. 22, 2005 ( This year’s World Food Day marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization. Representatives from more than 150 countries gathered in Rome, where the FAO is headquartered, to mark the occasion.

During a ceremony held last Sunday, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf affirmed that the problem of hunger in the world is not primarily one of production. According to a FAO press release that day, Diouf told the gathering that the world has the resources and technology to produce sufficient quantities of food. It can meet the demand of a growing population, as well as bring an end to hunger and poverty.

The FAO official then issued a challenge to world leaders. «I dare to hope,» said Diouf, «that wisdom will guide the politicians who decide the destiny of this global village and that reason will prevail, allowing them to make decisions based on the social harmony of a world of solidarity and peace, not on short-term interests than can lead to injustice and social unrest.»

During the ceremony, the Italian minister of agriculture and forestry, Gianni Alemanno, called for more attention to be paid to Africa and for greater collaboration with nongovernmental organizations. He also said that eliminating hunger is more a case of «allowing people who suffer from hunger to be in a better position to get, in whole or in part, their own food.»

In a speech the next day, Diouf noted that considerable progress has been made in reducing the more extreme forms of hunger. Since 1960 the proportion of the world’s population that is undernourished has fallen from 35% to 13%.

Nevertheless, about 852 million people still suffer from some form of hunger, Diouf said. Moreover, some of the intensive agricultural systems that have permitted growth are not sustainable and have negative environmental, economic, social and cultural consequences.

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, also addressed the FAO meeting on Monday. Eliminating hunger, he commented, involves more than just ensuring market mechanisms function well and putting in place the technical means to ensure high levels of agricultural production.

Cardinal Sodano urged the participants to rediscover the full sense of the human person, starting with family life, which is where we learn about solidarity and sharing. He told them of the Church’s support for their efforts to help mankind, which, in practice, means openness to life, respect for the created order, and adherence to those ethical principles that form the basis for social life.

Millions die

Each year the FAO publishes a report on hunger. The most recent edition, «The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004,» was released last Dec. 8. According to the report, hunger and malnutrition kill more than 5 million children every year, and cost the developing countries billions of dollars in lost productivity and national income.

As well, each year hunger leads to more than 20 million low birth-weight babies being born in the developing world. These babies faced increased risk of dying in infancy, while survivors often suffer lifelong physical and cognitive disabilities.

The report highlighted the economic benefits that would flow from eliminating hunger. A rough estimate is that countries face $30 billion of direct costs due to dealing with the negative effects of hunger. In addition, there are the indirect costs of lost productivity and income. The FAO argued that every dollar invested in reducing hunger can yield from 5 to over 20 times as much in benefits.

One of the Millennium Development Goals is to reduce by half the number of hungry people in the world by 2015. But, according to the FAO report, that number rose to 852 million in 2000-2002, up by 18 million from the mid-1990s.

Even so, the 2015 goal can still be reached, the report argued. More than 30 countries, representing nearly half the population of the developing world, reduced the number of hungry people by at least 25% during the 1990s.

Hunger is a particularly acute problem in countries suffering from natural or man-made disasters. An overview of the current situation was given by James Morris, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program in a speech Aug. 10 to a meeting of the World Affairs Council in San Francisco.

Fading away

In 2004, Morris noted, the World Food Program helped 113 million people in 80 countries. But the problems these people face receive little media attention. In fact, only around 8% of deaths from hunger occur in the humanitarian emergencies widely covered on television, he observed.

The vast majority of those who die from hunger are «fading away in remote corners of the world that typically escape the notice of the public and the media,» Morris said.

As well, food aid has been dropping. It plunged by 30% last year, from 10.3 million tons in 2003 to 7.5 million tons in 2004. Morris also lamented a lack of aid money for agriculture, which he described as a key element in ending the cycles of food crises. Although total aid spending from donor governments has increased in recent times, the amount for agriculture has gone from 12% to just 4% of Official Development Assistance.

There are hopes that hunger and poverty in developing countries could be alleviated if trade barriers and government subsidies in the area of agriculture are reduced. Talks are under way in the World Trade Organization on this issue. According to a BBC report Oct. 10, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said the United States would sharply cut farm subsidies.

Part of the proposal made involves cutting key agricultural subsidies by 60% before 2010, with trade tariffs slashed by up to 90%. European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson subsequently said that the EU was willing to at least halve its highest tariffs on farm imports. But agreement on the issue is still far off. Moreover, the BBC reported Thursday that doubts had been cast on Mandelson’s promises due to opposition to the cuts by French Trade Minister Christine Lagarde.

Human dignity

Benedict XVI sent a letter to FAO’s director-general to mark World Food Day. In the message dated Oct. 12, the Pope stressed that the goals set by the FAO could only be met if the safeguarding of human dignity — the origin and end of all fundamental rights — becomes the criterion that inspires and guides the U.N. agency’s efforts.

The Holy Father stated that resolving the problem of hunger is a matter requiring the attention of the international community, because all have a duty to take care of their brothers.

He also added that in addition to geographic or climatic causes, hunger is caused by human factors. This includes egoism and the lack of attention to people’s needs that result when the human person is reduced to the status of a mere instrument.

Noting that the theme for this year’s World Food Day was «Agriculture and Dialogue of Cultures,» the Pope observed that technical progress needs to be placed within a broader context. This means putting the human person at the center of attention, taking into account the overall nature of his needs and aspirations. Citing Scripture, the Pope noted: «Man does not live on bread alone.»

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