There’s a food crisis coming

Published on Times of India, December 19, 2009.

… For India, this is not just an academic issue. India is home to by far the biggest number of hungry people in the world. While the FAO projections for 2009 do not provide a detailed country-wise break-up, its 2008 report did, and in that India accounted for 252 million of the 873 million under-nourished people all over the globe in the period 2004-2006. That’s almost 30% of the world’s undernourished population, a share larger than sub-Saharan Africa and twice China’s. More worryingly, it’s a significant increase from the 210 million undernourished people India had at the beginning of the 1990s.


Quite apart from the human-moral angle, hunger and malnutrition entail large economic costs, severely compromising the productivity of individuals, including the learning ability and physical growth of children.

When more than 20 or 30% of the population is chronically undernourished, as is the case in almost 40 countries including India, the growth of entire economies slows down. Economic costs range from loss of productivity to increased medical care.

There are indirect costs too, due to compromised cognitive and physical development. In developing countries, one in three children under the age of five is stunted due to chronic malnutrition, and 148 million children are underweight. Micronutrient malnutrition affects over 30% of the world’s population – some two billion people – and is accompanied by serious physical incapacity/impairment, illness and disease, including those related to excess consumption (overweight and obesity, heart disease, diabetes and stroke), according to a report presented at the World Food Summit in Rome last month … //

… The solution to the crisis is thus clear. It requires a reversal of the neglect of agriculture over the last couple of decades. But unless governments exhibit the political will to do so, and do so now, the world will just keep becoming a hungrier place to live in.


Another myth is that adopting high yielding or genetically engineered varieties is a magic wand that will boost productivity straightaway. But there’s an accompanying problem. According to FAO, 50 per cent of plant-based calories in the human diet is derived from just four crop species. Diversity in food is dying out even as supermarkets pack their shelves with hundreds of processed food items that give the appearance of great diversity. This is a dangerous situation because genetically modified crops cannot crossbreed , leading to a proliferation of hybrids, as natural varieties do. This leaves the modified crop extremely vulnerable to new pests, diseases and climatic changes. (full text).

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