The Blog


11:00 PM, Nov 24, 1996 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

There is scarcely a nobler quest in the world than the search for solutions to the continuing tragedies of starvation and famine. But perhaps in no other humanitarian venture do people so mistake good intentions for good policy. The subject of world hunger can cause the vision of ordinarily brilliant intellectuals, learned academicians, and clear-headed statesmen suddenly to blur. All around the world, specialists and policymakers continue to entertain beliefs and accept premises about the world food situation that are demonstrably, often glaringly, invalid. And, therefore, life-threatening.

To a strange and disturbing degree, modern international man is, quite literally, starved for ideas. Widely accepted misconceptions, stubborn idees fixes and crude ideological notions about the nature of hunger and famine in the modern world are impeding the quest to achieve food security for all. Guided -- or more exactly, misguided -- by fundamentally flawed assessments of the prevalence and causes of global hunger, we cannot hope to attain satisfactory results. At best, our well-meaning efforts will be merely ineffective; at worst, we risk making bad conditions worse, and injuring our intended beneficiaries.

Modern-day myths about the world food problem are legion. And there are three such myths in the air today that are particularly fashionable, and particularly pernicious. The first concerns the current dimensions of the hunger problem. The second might be described as the "Malthusian specter." The third bears on the relationship between hunger and political morality in the modern world.



According to a large body of major studies by reputable and authoritative organizations, the magnitude of the global malnutrition problem in the modern era is vast -- so vast as to be almost incomprehensible. According to some of these studies, moreover, the problem has been worsening over time.

In 1950, Lord Boyd-Orr, the first director general of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), warned that "a lifetime of malnutrition and actual hunger is the lot of at least two-thirds of mankind." Thirty years later, a United States Presidential Commission on World Hunger concluded that "this world hunger problem is getting worse rather than better. There are more hungry people than ever before." In 1991, the U.N. World Food Council declared that "the number of chronically hungry people in the world continues to grow." And at the World Food Summit held last week in Rome, an official document put the undernourished population of the world at well over 800 million. That figure suggests that one out of five persons from developing countries was suffering from chronic undernutrition in the early 1990s.

By such soundings, we would seem to have made no relative progress whatever against Third World hunger over the past generation. And given the growth of population in the less developed regions, the absolute number of hungry people in the world would appear to have increased tremendously in recent decades.

A distressing and disheartening picture, no doubt. But there is one small thing wrong with this picture: It is empirically false. Astonishing as it may sound to the non-specialist, every major international study that has attempted to quantify global hunger over the past two generations is demonstrably and deeply flawed.

Using the methods employed in any one of these studies, it would be impossible to derive an accurate impression of the global hunger situation. And the conditions under which some of the studies were prepared were far from ideal. For citizens and policymakers committed to charting a course against world hunger, these studies offer a distorted and misleading map.

The flaws are sometimes quite technical, but they are never difficult to describe. In every instance, they are due to questionable and unsupported assumptions about individual nutritional needs in large populations, and equally questionable assumptions about the correspondence between national food supplies and individual food intake.