Serious distortions of world food system are reflected in rather curious statistics that as many as a billion people suffer from hunger but almost double this number also suffer from obesity. However it should be clarified that obesity is not generally the result of overeating as much as this is the result of unhealthy foods churned out and promoted on a vast scale by the food industry. Hunger is linked to many- sided injustices and inequalities, of course, and several distortions of the systems of producing and distributing food.
According to WHO data for 2020 for entire world, in the case of children under 5 years of age, 45% of deaths are linked to undernutrition. 47 million children are wasted, over 14 million are severely wasted, 144 million are stunted while 38 million are overweight.
There are several factors which can cause increasing hunger. As small farmers face increasing distress and many of them lose their land or are displaced, this will increase hunger. Landless people in rural areas of many countries are highly vulnerable to hunger and lack of adequate food. Climate change and increasing water stress are likely to contribute in a big way to growing seriousness of hunger and undernutrition.
Conflict areas are emerging as biggest zones of hunger and undernutrition in our troubled world. A combination of conflict and drought has time and again led to a large number of avoidable hunger deaths, in some cases several hundred thousand deaths in a single country in a single year. Underlying this often are also important factors of injustice and inequality. Leading agencies like the World Food Program have been warning about the possibility of increasing hunger deaths in several trouble zones, particularly after the hunger situation worsened in Covid times.
The problems relating to safety of food has worsened greatly following the spread of farming based on heavy use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, herbicides etc. in most parts of the world. Wendell Berry has written, “ It is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that use to be in our food have been replaced by poisons.” The report of the London Food Commission said that at least 92 pesticides cleared for used in Britain have been linked with cancer , birth defects or genetic mutation in animal studies. The Commission also noted that about 3800 additives were being used to perform about a hundred functions, and only about a tenth of these were subject to any government control.
The problems of food safety are likely to worsen greatly with the spread of GM food. As eminent scientists gathered under the Independent Science Panel have noted in their report on GM crops, “ sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and safety.” 17 distinguished countries from several countries wrote to the former Indian Prime Minister on the hazards of GM foods, “ Numerous animal feeding studies demonstrate negative health impacts of GM feed on kidney , liver, gut, blood cells, blood biochemistry and the immune system.”
Very powerful and resourceful food and farming corporations with a proven record of violating safety norms and using unethical practices to push profits over urgent public interests have been further increasing their reach and influence, also getting the support of equally powerful international agencies , raising serious concerns for future.
Hence both at levels of increasing hunger and increasing risks to food safety there are very serious and worrying concerns for now and even more so for future.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.