Bad outcomes for eaters: stuffed and starved

One of the ultimate ironies of the contemporary food system is the persistent coexistence of hundreds of millions (if not billions) of hungry people on the planet, while increasing numbers of people are obese or otherwise unhealthily overweight. Intelligent (and to me, sexy) commentators like Raj Patel note that humans are on the whole “stuffed and starved” by the existing food system. This clearly makes no sense, if the goal is a long-term sustainable (and short-term equitable) system that people can thrive within.

According to 2015 FAO propaganda, “793 million people are undernourished globally, down 167 million over the last decade, and 216 million less than in 1990–92.” Yet, multiple critiques have effectively poked holes in the statistical methodology and overall assumptions FAO uses to produce these reports. For example, these statistics are based on gross measures of food production from incomplete, incommensurable, and inconsistent national reports, and they measure “food insecurity” only when someone has lacked sufficient calories for a year or more. Furthermore, the measure of “insufficient” calories is 1,800 per day: only enough to survive if one leads a “sedentary” lifestyle. That means you sit around doing nothing all day, which is not the life most people live.

If we add in people who suffer “malnutrition”—the lack of enough micronutrients for healthy body function rather than purely caloric supply—the number of people who are suffering from not enough food is certainly in the billions. Anthropologist Jason Hickel—who has done some of the best critical reporting on these FAO reports—says more accurately “at least 2 billion people, nearly a third of humanity, cannot access adequate food”.

Meanwhile, due to the spread and dominance of the corporate industrial food system, more and more people are roped into the “cheap food” world of corporate fast foods, packaged “convenience” foods, and empty calories of fats and grain-based sugars and carbohydrates (from refined wheat breads to corn syrup and cheap palm oils). The prevalence of these foods (along with decreasing levels of activity in many societies) has led to major public health crises of epic proportions: nearly two billion people are overweight. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancers related to diet are exploding.

If you read the “key messages” of the FAO’s hunger reports, there are consistent references to “economic growth” as an important precondition to solving issues of hunger. At the same time that their methodology is at best flawed (or at worst purposefully deceitful), this supposition about the importance of economic growth to hunger reduction is “unsupported by the data collected” in the report. It’s almost as if an imperative to promote growth at any costs subverts solutions to hunger that may call the growth paradigm into question.

Hunger is directly tied to economics more than to the total production of food. This has been undisputed for some time now [1]: people mostly go hungry because they are poor. Even the FAO admits that we already produce enough food to feed 9 billion people (but a third of that is wasted). Yet to connect economics to hunger (beyond repeated calls for “growth”) might entail questioning the basis for the economic system, and perhaps seeing hunger as an inevitable outcome of that system rather than a temporary mistaken outcome that could be remedied by a continuation of business as usual, with tweaks.

Seems that FAO is not willing to go in this direction quite yet, and nor are other major institutions that shape the food system, so we continue to be stuffed and starved.

[1] (with some interesting critiques of the most famous proponent of this view)