The Myth: Scarcity. The Reality: There IS enough food.
In celebration of our 40th anniversary year, Food First is revisiting past publications from our rich archive of analyses on the root causes of hunger and social movements fighting for the right to food around the world. We hope you enjoy (re-)reading these trail-blazing pieces, which remain highly relevant today.
In 1998, Food First published a Backgrounder adapted from the second edition of the book World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, now in its second edition. In World Hunger, the authors argued that hunger results not from scarcity, but from the inequitable distribution of abundance. By exploding the scarcity myth and focusing on the need for redistributive justice, Lappé, Collins and Rosset established one of the central arguments of Food First’s work to this day. Indeed, as agribusiness continues to tout the lie that we must ramp up food production (with their help, of course!) to feed a rising global population, this pioneering analysis is among the best tools in our political and intellectual arsenal for demanding justice.
With food-producing resources in so much of the world stretched to the limit, there’s simply not enough food to go around. Unfortunately, some people will just have to go hungry. We must put all our efforts into boosting agricultural production in order to minimize hunger.
The world today produces enough grain alone to provide every human being on the planet with 3,500 calories a day. That’s enough to make most people fat! And this estimate does not even count many other commonly eaten foods—vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. In fact, if all foods are considered together, enough is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day. That includes two and a half pounds of grain, beans and nuts, about a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk, and eggs.
A 1997 study found that 78 percent of all malnourished children under five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses.
Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the supply of food in the world today. Increases in food production during the past 35 years have outstripped the world’s unprecedented population growth by about 16 percent. Indeed, mountains of unsold grain on world markets have pushed prices strongly downward over the past three and a half decades. Grain prices rose briefly during the early 1990s, as bad weather coincided with policies geared toward reducing overproduction, but still remained well below the highs observed in the early sixties and mid-seventies.
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Hunger in the face of ample food is all the more shocking in the Third World. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, gains in food production since 1950 have kept ahead of population growth in every region except Africa. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) found in a 1997 study that 78 percent of all malnourished children under five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses.
Thus, even most “hungry countries” have enough food for all their people right now. This finding turns out to be true using official statistics even though experts warn us that newly modernizing societies invariably underestimate farm production—just as a century ago at least a third of the U.S. wheat crop went uncounted. Moreover, many nations can’t realize their full food production potential because of the gross inefficiencies caused by inequitable ownership of resources.
A Future of Scarcity?
A centuries-old debate has recently heated up: just how close are we to the earth’s limits?
Major studies have arrived at widely varying conclusions as to the earth’s potential to support future populations. Always a slippery concept, estimates of the Earth’s “carrying capacity,” or the number of people who could be supported, have varied from a low of one billion in a 1970 study to a high of 1,022 billion put forth in 1967. Among studies published between 1990 and 1994, most estimates fall in the 10 to 14 billion range. By contrast the 1996 United Nations forecast, generally considered to be the best future population projection, predicts that the world population will peak at 9.36 billion in the year 2050, and stabilize thereafter.
Here at home, just as in the Third World, hunger is an outrage precisely because it is profoundly needless.
In view of today’s abundant food supplies as well as the potential elaborated in World Hunger: Twelve Myths, we question the more pessimistic predictions of demographic catastrophe. Not that anyone should take the more pessimistic predictions lightly; they underscore the reality of the inevitably finite resource base entrusted to us. They should therefore reinforce our sense of urgency to address the root causes of resource misuse, resource degradation, and rapid population growth.
Lessons From Home
Finally, in probing the connection between hunger and scarcity we should never overlook the lessons here at home. In the 1990s over 30 million Americans cannot afford a healthy diet, and 8.5% of U.S. children are hungry and 20.1% more are at risk of hunger. But who would argue that not enough food is produced? Surely not U.S. farmers; overproduction is their most persistent headache. Nor the U.S. government, which maintains huge storehouses of cheese, milk and butter. In 1995, U.S. aid shipments abroad of surplus food included more than 3 million metric tons of cereals and cereal products, about two thirds consisting of wheat and flour. That’s enough flour to bake about 600 loaves of bread per year for every hungry child in the U.S.
Here at home, just as in the Third World, hunger is an outrage precisely because it is profoundly needless. Behind the headlines, the television images, and superficial clichés, we can learn to see that hunger is real; scarcity is not. Only when we free ourselves from the myth of scarcity can we begin to look for hunger’s real causes.
Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins founded Food First in 1975 and Peter Rosset is former Executive Director of Food First.
Click here to read the full Backgrounder—including more detailed analyses of India, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Africa.