A Crisis of Overabundance

Food aid policies are in desperate need of reform

Student uproar reached fever pitch last year when the administration decided to cut hot breakfast from house dining halls. Yet, ask one of the many undergrads en route to their House d-halls for dinner, and few will be able to tell you that over one billion people—one out of every six humans—go hungry every day. Sixty percent of total global mortality is due to malnutrition, and the World Health Organization calls malnutrition the gravest single threat to the world’s public health.

Certainly, mass hunger is hardly a new phenomenon. However, the horrifying reality is that desperate hunger persists despite the tremendous technological advances that have made food cheaper and more readily accessible than ever before. The crisis of the modern era is not one of lack but rather of excess—a crisis of overabundance.

The volcanic ash that temporarily shut down Europe earlier this year brought this supreme irony into painful relief. With flights in and out of the continent grounded, substantial amounts of produce and goods sat in warehouses across Africa and Asia. But because food spoils quickly, companies could not wait to sell overflow inventory when European airspace re-opened. No, the food would be trashed. This juxtaposition of starvation with inordinate amounts of food, not only in the developing world but also in affluent urban metropolises, begs immediate action.

Upending the status quo is, however, hardly as easy as simply shipping food to the poor. First, direct provision of food is only a temporary solution: It is neither sustainable in the long-run nor addresses any of the root causes of the lack of food. Food aid today fails on both of these counts. The U.S. has been criticized by a growing number of advocates who see our policies on food aid as not much more than corporate marketing. Under the current system, the federal government buys the surplus from American agribusiness, ships it overseas on mostly American-flagged carriers, and then donates it to aid groups, who in turn sell on local markets. The E.U. and Japan are similarly guilty, beholden to the politically powerful, multibillion dollar industry lobbies.

Food aid also fails on a second front. The sudden influx of food in developing markets artificially lowers prices—what trade economists call “dumping.” Already struggling farmers, often using agricultural practices that date back millennia, can provide no competition for American taxpayer-subsidized crops and are subsequently driven deeper into poverty. Earlier this year, news outlets reported what developing government officials have been bitterly arguing for years: Haiti wanted food aid to stop, citing the international outpouring of support after the devastating earthquake as interfering with its economy. This information was quietly swept under by donor-sensitive aid agencies.

Finally, food aid is politically corrosive, perpetuating undemocratic regimes, incentivizing corruption, and institutionalizing inefficiency. The brouhaha over aid to Zimbabwe and North Korea, after all, was predicated on preventing the dictatorial Mugabe and Kim regimes from using food as political currency for supporters. Earlier this year, a leaked United Nations Security Council report claimed as much as half of the food aid to Somalia was channeled not to the country’s roughly three million hungry, but to a “web of corrupt contractors, radical Islamist militants, and local United Nations staff members.”

But this is an opportunity for meaningful change. In 2007, the global charity CARE declared it would reject government funding for food aid, citing many of these same problems. Last year, the Obama administration pledged $408 million to a $22 billion fund by wealthy donor countries to boost food production in the developing world. It is past due to reshape and transform the prevailing consensus. Instead of dumping subsidized produce, why not export best practices in farming and technologies for improving crop yields? The new generation of food aid should be contingent on efficacy for the recipient, not reward to the donor—sustainability, not convenience. Next time you place your tray on the dining-hall conveyor belt, don’t just think about how much food you are wasting, but imagine a world where that luxury would be shared by all.

Thomas J. Hwang ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Lowell House.

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