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Why Hunger and Thirst Don't Have to Doom the World.

Starving for Answers


In May, the United Nations announced that while globally there are 200 million fewer hungry people than there were 25 years ago, twice as many African countries are now suffering food crises. Moreover, Pacific islanders’ access to sanitation facilities is declining, and just over half of that population has potable water. When it comes to the world’s food and water, the question remains of power and agency—who gets to control the resources on which human survival depends. Former U.N. special rapporteur Olivier De Schutter challenges the agency’s claim on hunger, stating that numbers, if anything, have remained steady and explains why local responses, not solely international actions, will defeat hunger. Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, asserts that slaking a parched planet requires collective pragmatism, even cooperation among adversaries. Climate change demands that humankind be nourished more sustainably; figuring out whose responsibility this is won’t be easy. But it is crucial.

Don’t Let Food Be the Problem

Producing too much food is what starves the planet.

Fifty years ago, many people believed the world was on the edge of disaster. In the mid-1960s, the annual rate of population growth peaked at an estimated 2.1 percent. In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich predicted in his best-selling book, The Population Bomb, that entire regions would soon be facing starvation as agricultural output failed to catch up with demographic growth; after all, in much of the developing world, yields per surface—that is, the amount of food produced on a given piece of land—had been stagnating for decades. Before long, the neo-Malthusians’ doomsday predictions seemed to be turning into reality. In 1972, bad harvests in the Soviet Union, combined with the first global oil shock the following year, led the real prices of food to skyrocket suddenly.

The answer, governments decided, was to produce more food—much more food. The specific responses varied, but the general approach was similar everywhere: Technological advances and public policies, including subsidies to farmers, would raise outputs and drive prices down. This vision shaped the Common Agricultural Policy of the fledgling European Economic Community, while in the United States, it inspired President Richard Nixon’s agriculture secretary to launch a massive program encouraging grain production. Farmers were told not to worry about the risk of gluts in the markets; if prices were insufficient to cover costs, the government would make up the difference. In South Asia, where the perils associated with overpopulation were considered to be highest, the Green Revolution attempted to boost agricultural output through new high-yielding crop varieties, particularly wheat and rice; the extension of irrigated land; and a massive increase in the use of chemical fertilizers and mechanization.

795M people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. That's about one in nine people on earth. (World Food Programme)

This framing of hunger and malnutrition primarily as quantitative problems—the results of a remediable mismatch between supply and demand—didn’t just shape policy choices in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It inaugurated a trend that has lasted for several decades almost without interruption, driven by governments and big agribusiness. Judged by their own standards, the revolutions in food systems have been tremendous victories. As population growth rates have declined, agricultural output has grown steadily—about 2.1 percent annually over the past 50 years—and without a significant expansion of cultivated areas. In 1961, food grown on 1.37 billion hectares of land fed 3.5 billion people; by 2011, when the world’s population had doubled to 7 billion, only 12 percent more land was being used.

Was looming disaster thus averted? Not exactly.

The absolute number of hungry people has hardly been reduced since the early 1970s, consistently oscillating around 850 million—that is, when including such things as short-term undernourishment, inequalities in food distribution within the household, among other things, that the United Nations overlooks in its annual State of Food Insecurity reports. While the proportion of undernourished people has declined—today, it’s about 12 percent of the world’s population—hunger is far from eradicated. In fact, when assessed from the viewpoint of their contributions to health, poverty alleviation, and environmental protection, the food systems inherited from the 20th century have not been a spectacular success. Rather, they have failed spectacularly.

It might appear that the world is hopelessly stuck with a dysfunctional behemoth of a global food economy. From storage facilities to processing plants and transportation routes, infrastructures have been built in support of large-scale production. As a result, today’s food systems are in the hands of large agrifood interests—the commodities brokers, the food processors, the increasingly concentrated retailers—whose dominance only breeds dominance. Because they have the logistics, control the networks, and capture the subsidies, they can easily crush competitors. These large actors, in turn, have reason to oppose a transformation in the food systems, and their economic heft allows them to veto change. In the meantime, they continue to flood the markets with processed foods, manufactured from the mountains of soy and corn that governmental subsidies encourage.

These interconnected systems of overproduction won’t feed the world. In fact, it is both what ails humankind and what starves it. Although its Goliath-like scale might make it appear invincible, its very ungainliness and failure to meet human needs could yet be its undoing. Indeed, big food has already been met with resistance in the form of an idea steadily gaining traction at the grassroots level: food sovereignty.

The concept emerged 20 years ago from the mobilization of small-scale farmers, or campesinos, in Costa Rica, and from the protest marches of small-farm holders in the Indian state of Karnataka. The message was simple: Agricultural policies should not be held hostage to the exigencies of international trade. This idea was central to the establishment in 1993 of La Via Campesina, which is now arguably the world’s largest transnational social movement, spanning 164 local and national organizations in more than 70 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas; it represents an estimated 200 million farmers. Initially rural, the movement focused on the needs of small-scale farmers who took pride in their identity as “peasants”—very much a reaction to big-food geopolitics. By 1994, when the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations concluded, and at the request of major developing countries, agriculture had become a key bargaining chip in the establishment of the World Trade Organization. Food was set to become the next frontier of the great mill of commodification, and farmers the world over were asked to compete, even if this meant that the least competitive would disappear.

The early food-sovereignty activists of La Via Campesina were quite prescient when it came to understanding how international trade could—and would shape food systems: standardizing farmers as well as the commodities they produce, encouraging the unsustainable growth of long-distance trade controlled by the agrifood behemoths, and neglecting local and regional markets. Resilience requires diversity, these activists campaigned, including a diversity of markets. The 2008 food-price crisis showed how right they were. The dramatic spike in commodity prices hit the countries that depended the most on food imports particularly hard, and it did not benefit farmers, who were squeezed between rising costs for inputs upstream and large buyers downstream whose commanding position allowed them to capture most of the value of the food chain.

Food sovereignty has now left its rural origins and become a movement in which both consumers and producers seek to reclaim or reinvent food systems from the bottom up. Indeed, in all regions, groups of ordinary citizens are developing ways to gain autonomy and bypass the dominant industrial food systems.

On the consumers’ side, today food-policy councils in North America invoke sovereignty; examples from Toronto to Oakland are increasingly influencing experiments elsewhere. Sovereignty has given rise to farmers markets in Mumbai and Beijing, among other cities, and to school gardens and urban agriculture as citizens seek to reconnect to local farmers and, more broadly, to the food systems on which they depend.

On the production side, as a way out of the fossil fuel-based model, farmers increasingly are embracing agroecology. In this approach, biological control—the use of the right combination of crops on any single field—replaces the use of pesticides. Leguminous plants serve to nourish soils, reducing the need to use nitrogen-based fertilizers. Trees, which in the past had been banished from fields in the name of maximizing yields, are being planted again alongside crops; their roots allow soil to capture moisture better, and their shade reduces evaporation, making it possible to save water for irrigation. Integrated cropping and rotation allow the replenishment of soils that monocropping had been quietly destroying over decades.

Agroecology aims to reduce the use of external fossil fuel-based inputs, to recycle waste, and to combine elements of nature to maximize synergies. It treats the complexity of nature not as a liability, but as an asset. The farmer learns by trial and error, even when the ultimate “scientific” explanation may remain elusive; long at the receiving end of technological developments, he or she will now determine what works best in a local context.

Agriculture’s Food and Water Web

Over the past two decades, food-sovereignty movements have tirelessly pushed governments and corporations to put the power of production and distribution back into the hands of local farming communities. The fact remains, though, that the world’s food systems are still dominated by international trade. Two years after the 2008 crisis, food prices rose again almost as dramatically as they had fallen; that year, in 2010, the United States exported nearly $30 billion worth of corn, soybeans, and wheat—major staples on which the world’s poor largely depend—just in the trade routes shown here. Global trade networks have become busier as developing countries struggle to keep booming populations nourished. The United States, for instance, exported nearly $1 billion in soybeans to China in 2000; by 2010, that figure had increased to $12 billion. Meanwhile, as countries export crops, they also, in a sense, export water: Globally, the agricultural sector accounts for roughly 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals, according to the United Nations.

TRADE DATA: RESOURCES FUTURES / CHATHAM HOUSE; corn trade data, argentina: Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos, argentina; US corn trade data: UN COMTRADE; population density map via Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center

Let’s not lie to ourselves. Well-documented threats—peak oil, genetic erosion from monocropping schemes, soil degradation, climate change—will mean a future with more volatility and the need to quickly invent more solutions to food problems. Still, there is room for optimism: Devastating threats, in fact, could lead us to gradually favor resilience over efficiency.

If nimble, location-specific innovation is the best way to build that resilience, the paradox of an increasingly interdependent world requires creating alliances at the national and international levels to support local markets and systems—even partnerships long unthinkable. Environmental groups can team with parents organizations, as both worry about the impacts of industrialized food production on the planet and on their children. Politicians of all stripes concerned about public deficits might join forces with health-care practitioners to address the mounting costs of treating diet-related illnesses. Development NGOs may discover that their concerns about the impact of subsidies, which result in dumping on local markets in the global south, are echoed by taxpayers associations, which complain about the huge sums of public money that go to farmers to grow commodities—not food, but raw materials that serve as inputs to the food-processing industry.

The more I have worked with governments operating from the top down, the more I have come to believe in the strength of social movements to make change happen from the bottom up. Solutions that can be designed using local resources (in addition to, not instead of, external resources that may provide backup) are less vulnerable to outside market or energy shocks. The more diverse these solutions, the better local systems will be equipped to deal with contingencies.

Is this revolutionary? Perhaps not if we think of a revolution as an event in history when a group overthrows a regime and takes power. That view of revolution however, as German political philosopher Hannah Arendt once remarked, sounds more like a coup d’état. Changing society without seizing power is what food-sovereignty movements are about. The revolution they propose is a silent one. It is gradual. But it is already happening all around us, proposing an alternative to low-cost, big-food systems with which we’ve been saddled for far too long.

Olivier De Schutter (@DeSchutterUNSR), a legal scholar focusing on economic and social rights, served as the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food from 2008 to 2014.

Don’t Let Water Be the Problem

If Iran and the United States can cooperate on water issues, anyone can.

On May 27, 2009, the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul sent a cable to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office. The 2,000-word message detailed worsening water challenges in Iran: prolonged and frequent droughts, rising salinity that threatened natural wetlands, and irrigation practices that were sucking the country’s limited groundwater reservoirs dry without producing enough food. In the understated tone of diplomatic communiqués, the cable endorsed the idea of finding a way to help the Iranians.

At the time, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration was just four months old, and despite some outreach efforts by Washington, the United States and Iran publicly regarded each other as enemies. Tehran faced crippling trade and financial sanctions and remained on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Nonetheless, behind the scenes, Iranian water experts were so desperate to prevent Iran’s poor water practices from destabilizing the country that they were urging Tehran’s chief international antagonist to step in with technical and scientific assistance. According to the cable, these experts predicted that, if offered discreetly, U.S. aid would “be met with a cautiously pragmatic response from the [government of Iran] and with grateful enthusiasm from Iran’s scientific and environmental communities.”

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the world’s water issues. Nearly 2 billion people use water contaminated with human waste. Each day, 44 percent of the world’s people rely on water that must be carried back to their homes—mostly by women and girls who end up trapped in a kind of slavery, unable to get good educations or jobs, in part, because they must devote so much time to fetching water. Meanwhile, most major aquifers in the planet’s arid and semiarid regions are being dangerously overpumped.

And water woes only seem destined to get worse. In the next 25 years, the world is expected to add 1.7 billion more people, almost all of them in water-stressed areas. Climate change will shift rain and snow patterns, creating flooding and drought. If current water challenges seem like brush fires—flaring, doing damage, then subsiding—they could soon become wildfires: sources of much more harm and maybe even conflict.

Food Finances

During the 2008 food crisis, the price of the world’s staples jumped to their highest levels in decades, but dropped shortly after. They skyrocketed again in 2010 and 2011, indicating that 2008 wasn’t an anomaly, as shown here by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price indices, which measure average international prices of commodities.

data: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

That’s the bleak bet, anyway, and the easy one. But there is a less apocalyptic, more counterintuitive possibility: that the worse water problems become, the more likely they are to be addressed collaboratively and effectively.

Just look at the United States and Iran. Water has become a surprising area of routine cooperation between the two countries, despite continuing public acrimony. Even before the 2009 cable, Iranian and American water experts had met every few years. Recently, they’ve met once a year or more, typically for a couple weeks at a time, to trade experience, advice, and research. The exchanges have involved hundreds of scientists from dozens of institutions. American experts were in Iran this January; as of press time, a group of 10 Iranians was expected at the University of California, Irvine, in late June.

The unlikely alliance points to what some see as the underappreciated power of water: its capacity to get people to work together, in ways large and small, both locally and across national boundaries. Water problems have an inherent urgency and universality. Their outcomes can determine whether populations thrive or fail. Unlike with shortages of energy or food, there are no alternatives for water in almost all of its uses.

The trick is how to spin capacity into real progress. Thanks to research and experience, people know well the misery and instability that a blossoming of water challenges will cause—a rare insight in a world afflicted with uncertainty. But for water’s future to look better than its recent past, knowledge must translate into resources, invention, and diplomacy that create permanent solutions. Otherwise, chaos looms.

Water is suddenly on the list of urgent priorities in government offices and executive suites around the world—even in the Vatican with Pope Francis’s encyclical this summer. In February 2012, U.S. intelligence agencies jointly produced a dedicated report assessing the risks water issues pose to national security. The blunt assessment: “[M]any countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure [and] increase regional tensions.” Private companies that are dramatically changing their operations in order to use water more sustainably include Ford Motor, Intel, Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, Campbell Soup, and Google. At the start of 2015, business and political leaders attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, ranked water problems as the No. 1 source of risk to societies. Five years ago, water barely made the list.

For people who’ve spent decades tackling water issues, this attention is both welcome and disorienting. No society overcomes a major obstacle it doesn’t realize it has, but the community that works on water—so used to operating under the radar—is worried that public awareness won’t necessarily be harnessed, that momentum might be squandered. “I don’t want to be glib about this. I’ve been arguing for smart water management for decades,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and one of the world’s leading experts on water. “The problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do. The problem is we aren’t doing it.”

In theory, virtually every water challenge can be dealt with. Typically, there’s enough water to go around in a given locale, and the technical hurdles to making that happen aren’t too high. Although international cooperation and aid can be important in some situations, global treaties aren’t necessarily required; cities in California or farmers in northern India can address their water troubles without waiting for a summit. That’s the good news, and it’s frequently overlooked.

Water Isn't Free

Cheap drinking water isn’t just a matter of modern infrastructure. Denmark has some of the world’s highest drinking-water costs, as the government encourages conservation by requiring customers to pay the entire bill themselves. Singapore, though, has some of the cheapest costs relative to GDP per capita; despite rising incomes, water prices on the island nation have remained the same over the past 15 years. Here, consumption is measured in 200 cubic-meter units, the rough equivalent to one-twelfth of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

data: International Statistics for Water Services, “Information Every Water Manager Should Know” report, 2012

What’s more, with water, the really big mistakes haven’t yet been made. Sure, cities with millions of residents don’t bother to treat their sewage, and rivers from the Colorado to the Tigris and Euphrates aren’t well-managed. But current dilemmas can be addressed. Meanwhile, big challenges are already visible on the horizon. Scientists know that sea levels are rising, and where; they know that climate change is likely to make the wet parts of the globe wetter and the dry parts drier; they know how to feed many more people without using more water.

Water, however, doesn’t respond to wishful thinking—and that’s exactly what there’s too much of right now in all corners of the world. Unless reversed or prevented, water troubles will continue to cause conflict, strangle economic growth, and diminish safety and stability for people. Already, we have seen how bad water management can be the last straw where economic, cultural, and political volatility already exists.

That’s what happened in Syria, according to an analysis by Gleick published last year in Weather, Climate, and Society, a journal of the American Meteorological Society. “The conflict in Syria isn’t about water; it’s about religion, ideology, economics, and ethnic tensions,” Gleick said in an interview. “But to argue that it had nothing to do with water is wrong.” A four-year drought starting in 2006 triggered food shortages, price increases, and the migration of bereft farmers to cities, where many couldn’t find work. This piled popular unrest and pressure onto the government of President Bashar al-Assad. “I could spin a scenario where the Assad regime had smart water management institutions—and expanded agricultural production, reduced unemployment, prevented migration to the cities,” Gleick noted. “It’s not hard to see a different scenario.”

It’s a crucial insight to keep in mind in order to avert a repeat of the Syria case in another region: More often than not, water problems don’t require high-tech miracles—they require pragmatism.

Already, there’s plenty of this happening. For example, conflict has been brewing in the Nile Valley for years, as Ethiopia builds the largest dam in Africa, and Sudan and Egypt, sitting downstream, worry that the river they rely on will be disrupted. In March, after years of negotiations, the three countries signed a framework agreement to share both the river’s water and the electricity from Ethiopia’s new dam. In India, meanwhile, where more than half of homes have no toilets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched a nationwide sanitation campaign. His government has constructed 6 million toilets and wants to install some 50 million more by 2019. “The lesson,” Gleick said, “is don’t let water be the problem. Smart countries, smart leaders, will try to take water out of the equation [of instability] by doing the things that we know work.”

That can mean high-level diplomacy or millions more latrines. It can also mean innovation, which thankfully is being pursued on many fronts. It costs just 25 percent of what it did two decades ago to make ocean water drinkable. Water-cleaning systems have also become dramatically cheaper and easier to operate, to the point that individual buildings, schools, and factories can afford their own on-site water-recycling systems. Inexpensive sensor technology commercialized in just the last five years means that farmers can finally determine how dry their fields are and water only when crops actually need it.

Still, despite some headway, the leap from worry to concerted, widespread action has yet to be made. There is no uncertainty about water’s value to human life or about the damage that unsound water policies can do. But the burgeoning water revolution has yet to inspire a necessary sense of determination, to prompt everyone—from policymakers to businesses to farmers to consumers—to see their own vulnerabilities with clear eyes and decide to tackle them.

The reason is straightforward: Water problems don’t get solved because they often aren’t really about water. They’re about politics and economics, culture and habit. Due to long-standing policy and practice, for instance, farmers from Pakistan to Kansas pump groundwater for their crops not only without paying for it, but often without limit or even keeping track of how much they use. It’s seen almost as an entitlement; charging farmers for water or insisting on better irrigation technology inspires outrage and resistance. Similarly, leisurely daily showers and lush lawns explain how Americans end up using twice the amount of water per person as Europeans do. Changing attitudes about water’s value, in other words, is just as important as creating the correct mix of dams, treatment plants, and sustainable-agriculture policies.

A shift in attitude is what happened in 2009, when scientists in Iran were able to view their country’s risky water prospects plainly enough to ask the Americans for help. The Iranians understood something that government officials, water managers, and businesses everywhere can learn from: One way or the other, through action or indifference, the future of water is completely under human control. The right choice may be obvious, but it may also be uncomfortable or difficult, surprising or even humbling. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be made.

Charles Fishman (@cfishman) is a journalist and the New York Times best-selling author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.

A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August issue of  FP under the title “Survival By Design.”
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