Sunday, March 16, 2008

World Carelessness

"Green with a gun" commented on the previous post:

"We grow far more grain than we need to feed the world, so we can afford a big drop in production.

Around 2,100 million tonnes is produced each year. This is 318kg per person on the planet, enough for 3,050kcal and 87g of protein per person daily, which is about 50% more than the average adult doing moderate physical work needs.

But we don't eat it all directly. 750Mt grain goes to livestock and about 350Mt to biofuels.

And so rather than 318kg grain each, we get then 152kg grain, 43kg meat and 102kg milk products per person annually. This makes 2,150kcal and 66g protein for every person daily. About 7.5% more calories and 120% more protein than needed.

But the world also produces about 160kg of vegetables, 80kg of fruit, 25kg of sugar and 25kg of vegetable oils per person annually. These adds another 1,490kcal, 5g or so of protein, and lots of vitamins and minerals.

In all, 3,640kcal and 71g of protein daily.

Thus, the world provides already about 80% more food than is needed; we could feed 12 billion people without increasing food production, or taking any grain from biofuels or livestock.

The problem is distribution; there are 1,000 million overweight people in the West, and 800 million suffering from hunger in the Third World; these numbers are probably not a wild coincidence.

In the West, we also throw away around 25% of our food.

Were one of the major crops to lose in production, we could simply divert grain away from livestock and biofuels, or even waste less.

For example, wheat production is about 630Mt annually. Let's imagine the deadly fungus wipes out 90% of it - it's an absurd and impossible figure, but let's imagine it anyway.

If that happens, and all the loss is taken from grain eaten directly, total daily food comes to 2,816kcal and 50g protein daily. Still much more than enough.

If the grain is taken from livestock instead, we get 3,155kcal and 51g protein daily.

And so on. Nobody is going hungry because there's not enough food in the world to feed them. They go hungry because we choose for them to go hungry, because we waste a quarter of our food, and because they live in countries with civil wars and/or despotic regimes.

Even if 90% of the world's wheat crop is destroyed this year - which is not likely - there's still more than enough to feed everyone if we choose to, and if their country does not deliberately starve them by civil war and despotism."

And here is my response; posted here for better exposure-

Your numbers and relationships are 90% correct- an absurd and impossible number, but ... :-)

I don't know if I've said it in this blog before (don't think so) but the way I usually put it is:

Nobody on the planet starves because the world doesn't have enough food. 

We have so much food, we burn it.

People starve- because the world is mean.

And you can quote me. Lots of individual humans are very tender hearted- but our governmental actions, and inactions- speak clearly. We don't care.


Three bits I didn't quite get from your very good summary-

1). It's not only distribution that is horrifically bad- it's STORAGE.  Most of "world hunger" is in the tropics, and a major contributor is spoilage due to inadequate storage capability. Some years back (1998?), according to FAO stats, Nigeria (I think it was) and some of its neighbors had 80% of their maize crop- rot, after harvest.  Heavy rains.

2). You're 100% correct about how much food the world produces, and how it should be plenty for twice the people we have now.  In fact, I'd bet there's more food produced, and more waste, than you point out here.

But this changes nothing for the people who are hungry, now. Nobody is going to change anything that matters to them- except to raise the price of the bits already filtering down.

Any significant drop in the world wheat crop will mean- a rise in the price of cake and baguettes.  Which we the wealthy will pay without noticing.  Then our wonderful "free market" system kicks in; you know, the one that benevolently gets goods universally distributed to those that need them?  If you'll just not regulate it?  So this small- and impoverished- wheat producer, down at the end of the road system, can either sell his wheat locally; or put it on a truck and make money for the first time in his life.  Guess what happens?

So the amount of wheat available to the poor will- drop even further. "Let them eat barley!" some will say- except the roads aren't there- nor fuel for trucks- etc.

Some people WILL starve because of the crisis in wheat, because of who and where they are.

3). OK, we know all this; then governments, NGO's, and academics clearly must all be working hard on fixing roads and storage capabilities, right? When so much food is just lost, wasted, every year?

Wrong. Gosh, there just doesn't seem to be any MONEY in it for investors, if you put in roads that let people move food during the flood season; or build a grain storage facility that actually keeps rats, beetles, and mold out. And no big banquets and prestigious prizes for "500 secure storage facilities built!"

You get headlines and money from "Peanut butter engineered to provide vitamin A!  Tropical blindess cured at last!" - while the oil palms in the background - with 1000x as much vitamin A in the raw oil- are harvested for candy and frosting, soap and biodiesel in the first world.

And stuff like: "genetically improved millet (produced benignantly by our University!) will result in 10% increase in production!" - while 40% is rotting every year.  We're so proud.

We don't need to stamp out world hunger. 

We need to stamp out world apathy and ignorance.


katecontinued said...

Tremendous post, Greenpa. I know I will quote it. Thank you.

I also share another quote here, as I did at StepWise . . .

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Martin Luther King Jr.

I think it apt.

Hanley Tucks said...

1) Yes, storage is an issue. But again, excess production in other regions can in principle make up for this.

2) Yes, it's true that people are hungry now because we're so bad at distributing the food. My point is simply that a wheat fungus in particular is not going to make anyone go hungry; the real cause of hunger is our being poor at distributing the food, that as you say, we don't care.

The problem is not any wheat disease, but our indifference to the fate of people with darker skin than us, or people poorer than us.

A second problem is ongoing civil conflicts and dictatorships. It doesn't matter how caring and decent we are, there's not much we can do for people in Darfur without going to war with Sudan and Chad, and toppling their governments by force; going on the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, this may cause more suffering than it alleviates.

3) I'm sure lots of food is wasted, yes.

I'm not sure what the cause of your rant was. Is it to rail against the free market system? When we get a free market system, let me know and we can rant against it together.

At the moment we don't have a free market system; the US and EU depress world food prices and drive Third World farmers off their land. Then whatever the food price is doesn't matter because the people now living in urban slums can't afford it anyway.

If people are left to themselves in a more or less democratic country at peace with a genuinely free market, they will in general be able to feed themselves, either by growing their own food or working for money and buying it.

The problems are that they don't have any kind of genuine democracy, so that they can be starved without the government losing office; their countries are not at peace but have civil wars, and if people are having battles and laying land mines across your farm, however productive it is you leave it; and the markets are not free, but manipulated by the US and EU to ensure the poverty of the Third World.

A free market is a prisoner's dilemma, if one remains true to it while the other betrays, the loyal one loses. So for example Mexico under NAFTA removed subsidies for its corn farmers, while the US kept them. Thus US corn undercut Mexican corn, and Mexican farmers were no longer able to make a profit; they got into debt to wealthy landowners, and ultimately lost their land. Now with the ethanol subsidy to US corn farmers, the price of corn has gone back up, and the Mexican ex-farmers now living in slums can't afford corn, still less can they buy their land back. The Mexicans were loyal to the free market, and the US betrayed it; so the Mexicans lost out.

Realistically, no-one is going to ever have a genuinely free market. So countries have to look after themselves, and countries with a conscience have to make up for those without one.

Greenpa said...

Kate- MLK was good stuff.

Green w-a-g; as far as I can tell, you and I know and believe almost exactly the same things; but we're focused in different places.

You keep saying "this could be different"; and I keep saying "but it isn't."

The fungus WILL directly cause deaths- because it is a known "tipping" factor in the equilibrium. Yes, the equilibrium is a stench in the nostrils of the Universe. But the fungus will make it stink even worse.

And very real people will die. Which is the cause of my "rant" (who, me?).

It infuriates me.

I know these people. They are not statistics; I know their faces; have spoken, worked, and eaten with them.

I think you are saying "this COULD be fixed" - and what I am saying is "it will NOT be fixed".

What you say about free markets is exactly right- didn't I say that? :-) I meant to imply it. A free market will never distribute goods equably - it will put more goods into the hands of those with - uh, money, to buy things with.

One of the discussion points on my list is "such a promising species". Yes, we COULD be doing a much much better job of making the world a good place to live. We have much of the knowledge; a little of the wisdom, and tons of money.

What we lack- is the will, as a culture.


treacle said...

Greenpa, great post. I think I am somewhere between you and green with a gun on this one.

It could be fixed - yes, we are apathetic.

But we needn't be for much longer and what's more there are more and more people doing something about it. The Transition movement is one and there are many many others - its just that it will take a very longtime.

Hanley Tucks said...

I don't know what will or will not happen in the world, I have not been gifted any power of prophecy.

I can talk about what seems likely to me, and I can talk about what has happened before, and by combining those two can talk about what we can do. But at no stage do I know what will or won't happen. The course of history surprises us, sometimes in a good way, sometimes bad.

We forget our power as citizens. The reason that politics follows money isn't the money itself, it's just that money buys you talk time with the decision-makers. If I want a meeting with my local MP to tell him what I reckon, I may not get it, or only after months of nagging. But if I donate $20,000 to the party he'll see me this afternoon.

Elected representatives, being human, listen to the people they meet and know personally, and don't worry too much about those they don't. If a random stranger on the street says, "you're a fuckstick" that's quite different to when my wife says it.

I remember years ago reading an interview with an MP who said that if he got more than 30 letters in a year on any one topic, he'd bring it up in parliament, because he knew that for every one letter he got there were a hundred people who felt the same way but didn't bother writing, and 3,000 was more than enough to decide the next election.

The elites get so little feedback from the people that they just do whatever they reckon, rather than what we want them to do. Democracy consists of more than a few numbers on a piece of paper every three years or so. It's an ongoing thing.

So if you think that our governments have the wrong policy, let them know. Our governments represent us very well - they represent our wishes, and our apathy. The public policy was created by us. We're responsible for what our government does in our name.

So I am not interested in "people don't care". Bullshit. People care, but they think it futile to write their MPs and CEOs. This feeling of futility is reinforced by people saying, "this is what will happen." And it's not futile at all. If it were, we'd all still be living in feudal societies.

One day in every season, sit down and write your local, state and federal representatives, and the CEOs or marketing directors of any corporations in your area. Tell them exactly what you think, good and bad both. Every three months write five or six letters. That is not too painful a burden, I trust.

Put that doomerist bollocks aside. We've no need of it.

Greenpa said...

"I don't know what will or will not happen in the world, I have not been gifted any power of prophecy. "

Ah, now there, we can truly disagree.

Perhaps you are not sure; but I DO know- that the sun will come up tomorrow.

This is exactly the same. These events are in the train; the world turns- and writing your congressman today will NOT stop ANYONE from starving - tomorrow. Or this year.

That's what makes me angry. All this could have been prevented; but it IS too late for some people; right now.

And it strikes me that you're not familiar with my thinking; or actions. Take a read, here: Icebergs.
And here: movement

And my congressman called me, personally, two evenings ago. I don't neglect him.

Nobody on the planet is less "doomerist" than I am- or works harder for the future.

But it's useless to say "well, maybe the sun won't come up tomorrow." We know it will. No magic needed.