|Who's Hungry? And How Do We Know? Food Shortage, Poverty and Deprivation (UNU, 1998, 199 pages)|
Hunger is produced when need outstrips food availability, but the determinants of both need and availability are complex: they are controlled by forces both proximate to and quite remote from the individuals they affect. In food shortage, food supplies within some bounded region are less than the amount needed by the region's population. In food poverty, a household is unable to obtain enough food to meet the needs of its members. And in food deprivation, the nutrients consumed by an individual are less than he or she needs.
The three situations are causally linked, as shown in figure 1.1. One reason for food deprivation is food poverty, and one reason for food poverty is food shortage. It may seem obvious that if there is not enough food in the region some households will not have enough, and if there is not enough food in the household some members will go hungry. But it is also true that in food-short areas some households are more than adequately provisioned, and in non-food-short areas, some households are not able to meet the needs of all of their members. There are many possible causes of food poverty and deprivation other than food shortage.
The distinction among the three levels of social organization is helpful in considering which of the many different causes of hunger may be at work in any particular case and in avoiding the fallacious view of hunger as a single, simple problem. It also provides a framework within which the insights of disciplines focusing on one or another of the levels, and the distinctive policy foci of various organizations, may be integrated.
This can easily be seen by considering famine conditions - those in which widespread severe food shortage had led to elevated mortality and mass movements of populations in search of food. Famine has often been viewed as a production failure. Many international food aid efforts focus on simply increasing the supply of food available in such situations. A similar concern for the adequacy of aggregate food supplies in the longer term motivated the work of Green Revolution scientists to increase productive capacity in agriculture after World War II and is among the concerns driving current research in agro-biotechnology.
Recent research on famine (in particular, the work of Amartya Sen) has shown that massive crises of widespread hunger and increased mortality often occur despite aggregate food supplies that are no less adequate - and sometimes even more abundant - than usual. In such cases, the underlying cause of hunger is lack of access to food rather than lack of food. When such an upsurge in food poverty occurs, increasing aggregate food supplies will not necessarily improve the situation; the basic challenge is to develop and safeguard mechanisms of entitlement to food for those who have been denied access to existing food supplies.
Widespread entitlement failure may coincide with shortage, as when poor harvests undermine the livelihoods of farmers, reduce aggregate food availability, and drive up prices. Or it may occur quite independently, as when unemployment or rising prices of other goods reduce the amounts of food that certain groups can afford to purchase, or when food supplies are directed away from civilians and toward military needs. The point is that famine has multiple causes: we cannot conclude simply from the fact that some households are food poor that there is any shortfall in aggregate food supply.
Similarly, although food poverty is probably the most obvious cause of food deprivation, many go hungry in households that can afford to feed all their members adequately. Disease, voluntary abstention, discrimination, and misunderstood nutritional needs are among the additional causes of hunger that operate at this level.
Disease impairs absorption and utilization of nutrients, raises nutritional needs, and may also reduce appetite. In addition, food may be withheld as part of therapy for certain diseases.
Food intake is also deliberately restricted by individuals desiring to conform to cultural values for slimness or abstention. In the extreme, hunger strikes for political or religious reasons are carried to the point of starvation.
In households that can afford to feed all their members, discriminatory patterns of food allocation may give some more than they need and others less; where household food supplies are scant, such patterns may leave favoured members adequately fed and deprive others disproportionately. Although it is tempting to interpret this pattern as reflecting a deliberate decision to favour one and deprive the other, variations in the adequacy of the diet of members of the same household may also result from a misunderstanding of need. The nutritional difficulties of young children and pregnant women are cases in point. A child may become malnourished despite being given as much as he or she will eat, if the need for a more nutrient-dense diet is not recognized. Although this problem frequently arises in cultures whose diet is based on starchy staples - toddlers do not have the stomach capacity to eat enough of such foods to satisfy their caloric needs - it has parallels in societies with more diverse diets: parents in the United States have to be taught not to give skim milk to children under two. Similarly, nutritional needs during pregnancy may be under-appreciated by women who believe that delivery of a small baby will be less difficult and thus deliberately restrict their intake during pregnancy. Automatic interpretation of all differences in the adequacy of individual diets within households as discrimination, inappropriately classifies problems caused by disease, household survival strategies, or misunderstood need and could easily lead to ineffective interventions.
At each of these three levels, vulnerability to hunger, its social distribution, and corrective response clearly have a political dimension. The explicit or implicit promise of food security comprises an essential aspect of the social contract between political leaders and their constituents. An end to hunger cannot come about without political leaders who make ending hunger a priority and devote resources to this end (Barraclough 1989). Politicians are important social actors shaping the economic, social, and cultural framework for community organization. Specific descriptions of political obligations are also contained in the emergent concept of the human right to food (Messer 1996; Oshaug et al. 1994).