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Tip of the hunger iceberg

by Oxfam | August 3, 2011

As many as 12 million people in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia stand at the epicentre of the latest of the food crises that have swept the developing world since 2008, when international food markets first went haywire and climate change began to bite.

Nearly all the severely malnourished people flooding into refugee camps are pastoralist herders whose lands have been devastated by drought and whose animals are sick or dying from lack of fodder.

Their plight is shocking. Yet they are the tip of the hunger iceberg. At the end of last year, globally 925 million people were chronically undernourished; by the end of 2011 the number is expected to surpass one billion – that is one in seven human beings.

These numbers had been gradually falling until the mid-1990s, then levelled out for ten years, and spiked upward in 2008. This year, as food prices reach record highs, the number of undernourished people is spiking again.

And like those in East Africa, most of them are food producers. A full 50 percent are small-scale farmers; another 10 percent are pastoralists, fishers and forest users; and 20 percent are landless rural labourers. Only the final 20 percent are city-dwellers. (See the nifty info-graphic taken from the Oxfam campaign report)

And guess what: more than half are female, a reflection of systematic discrimination against women and girls.

The millions in East Africa need urgent assistance (to donate, click here). The hundreds of millions around the world, meanwhile, need their national governments and the international community to make fighting hunger a priority.

Canada is a food power, a minor one perhaps, but a power nonetheless, and what we do counts. We are the fifth-largest cereals producer, the fifth-largest cereals exporter, and the fourth-largest food aid donor.

Here are three ways our own approach to food affects hunger around the world:

First, there is the gross imbalance in agricultural investment. Rich countries spend 79 times more on their own farmers than on aid to agriculture in poor countries. Canada does much better than most: our farm subsidies are relatively low and the proportion of our aid that goes to agriculture is relatively high. The problem is the overall size of our aid budget. We’re 17th out of 22 donor nations and less generous than Spain or the Netherlands.

Second, there is the matter of burning food in our cars. You heard me right: about forty percent of Canada’s corn crop is turned into ethanol, rather than used for food, and the taxpayer foots much of the bill. While Canada’s ethanol production is small compared to the US and Europe, we burn a billion pounds of corn a year, enough to feed an awful lot of people.

Third, climate change has made farming all the more risky, especially in tropical and sub-tropical countries where changes in rainfall and temperature have played havoc with harvests. We can’t pinpoint climate change as the cause of the calamity in East Africa. But we do know that severe droughts used to occur there every 6-8 years; now they happen every 2 years.

Canada is in the top ten of the world’s greenhouse gas polluters, both in absolute and per capita terms. And don’t be fooled into thinking ethanol is our answer – it’s just as bad as gasoline for the planet.

We must respond generously to save lives in East Africa. And at the same time we need to get serious about these ways our approach to food contributes to hunger. If not, tragedies like the one unfolding today are likely to become more frequent and severe.

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