Hunger – a response.

In Harry Johnstone’s article, Hunger is presented as a moral dilemma, a dilemma at once contemporary and ancient, one of myriad shapes and inextricable causes. Indeed, Hunger is donned a persuasive personality, polymorphous, it is seemingly godlike, in-conquerable, infallible, immortal…

Johnstone aptly finds fault with a number of methods proposed to flay the beast: he picks apart the arguments of a number of theorists, vilifies the current leftist thinking, questions where on earth to start… his points are valid, and valuable, but he fails to propose his own theory, neither as to cause nor solution, and in its absence lies a hollow account, reeking more of resignation than resolution.

In the article Johnstone fails to engage with the role the West has in perpetrating hunger, as well as glossing over the link between the agricultural industry and food insecurity, both factors I consider fundamental as to the roots of hunger the world over. I believe that there are solutions to world hunger, but that these solutions dramatically jeopardise our own lifestyle, and we therefore refuse to consider them.

It is very easy to be self-righteous. Mine is a gut response to Johnstone’s article, which stems from the conviction that we are the perpetrators of hunger. I am convinced of our own hypocrisy, not just that of our government, not just the big players, but our own – yours, mine. It is sad to acknowledge our own error, and yet even in acknowledging this, yup, acknowledging this, the smug smile is still shaping on my face, for acknowledging my own error, mine and yours, I am in the “know”…

On debilitation:

The ‘trap’ of hunger and poverty means most of these people have to undergo an enormous struggle to break from this cycle of perpetual hunger. If they are severely undernourished, their cognitive and physical capacity is affected, making it much harder for them to develop the skills needed to overcome hunger. Almost every factor confronts these people: their natural environment, their social and political environments, and the economic structures functioning around them. Their struggle becomes one of mental endurance as well as sustenance.

I fear this “trap” is of our own making.

The notion that “these people” could ever possibly overcome this hunger seems to me implausible, implausible, for example, as the notion of their overcoming Western supremacy, implausible as long as we in the West continue to live as we do. As long as the capitalist/consumerist world governs our lifestyle, as long as we continue to abide by its ways, as long as we continue to over-consume, to buy cheap food, cheap clothes, to import from abroad, to fly and to drive… basically, as long as we continue to live unsustainably, depleting world resources… As long as we, in the West, define our greed as “need” and demand that all food be cheap and that all food be available all year round, as long as we remain totally out of touch with the food and agricultural industries, we are contributing to food insecurity in the poorer countries.

As an early parenthesis, it is interesting to note that our own food security is less sure/secure than we suppose. It has become apparent that it is in fact an utter myth, we are totally dependent on imports from these same countries, imports and also/thus oil, a non-renewable. Food insecurity is worldwide.

Until we ourselves are self-sufficient, community-sufficient, truly in-dependent of the poorer and coincidentally food insecure countries, these countries will be dependent on our “aid”, and (interestingly) the people of these countries will thus (through same dependence) remain dis-empowered. We can thus recognise the flaws in the kindly-meant notion of “capacity-building”, this supposed “enabling”/“empowering” is never quite strong enough to overrule the disabling/dis-empowering taking place at the same time, meaning that these people are never able to develop the skills needed to overcome hunger.

Hypocrisy: our open-handed gesture of aid follows on neatly from a back-handed one of debilitation. The cycle continues.

Something in it rather reminds me of the farming industry in the UK – a topic I am considering at present. A farmer turns and tills and ploughs and reaps and starves his soil over years, until today the soil is dead, bereft of any nutrients, of any lifeform. So, the farmer fertilises his soil (with potash, nitrogen and phosphorus, from fossil fuels btw) and the cycle continues. Were the farmer to farm holistically, to look after his soil in the first place, the soil would remain alive and be able to provide its own potash, nitrogen and phosphorus, creating a sustainable ecosystem within the fields. Instead he causes the destruction with one hand and with the other seeks to fix it.

It is important to recognise the profound connect between the modernisation of the agricultural industry and the rise in food insecurity. It was thought that the modernisation, industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture would provide more access and availability of food worldwide. However, we failed to consider the secondary effects – the social, health and environmental consequences of this industrialisation. In particular the impoverishment of the same landscape we depend upon to grow food and provide nutrition.

[To go down the route of genetic engineering in a hope to provide more food for more people would not only further the disconnect between people and planet/palate but risk even more severe secondary affects… must we trundle on repeating our mistakes? It is too late to alter the roots of this hunger? As Johnstone himself asks: do we really want to?]

As a pertinent aside let me sum up the points made in Timothy Wise’s article ‘The True Cost of Cheap Food’, which I have been reading alongside Johnstone’s:

The demand for cheap food has impoverished farmers all over the world, rid them of an income, impeded them from investing in their own farmland, put them out of work. The globalised food trade has meant that countries have stopped producing their own food because they can source it cheaper elsewhere, this creates enormous food dependency, and in turn food insecurity. When prices rise and supplies are short > food crisis. i.e .what happened in the Phillipines: no longer producing enough rice to feed own population, unable to source it because governments of other countries concerned with feeding their own first = food crisis. On top of all this, globalisation of trade brings with it globalised market failure.

Wise does not offer theory, but facts, and to my mind, by offering an understanding of the situation and the role we play as collaborators, he also offers us a means to change the situation. (This is what I understand by empowerment!)

On balance:

Humans have never conquered hunger. Look back through the records of ancient Rome, China, the Mayans – all were beset by food crises that lead to famine and starvation. But today, as rich countries’ supermarket shopping aisles are stuffed with thousands of foodstuffs, a phantasmagoria of branded edible products, and our race has hopped on the moon, and we have instantaneous satellite communication technology, how can we still have failed to master hunger?

In the pre-pre-globalised world, in a time long past, population was dependent on resources. In each locality, settled, separate, independent and unmoving as it was, the population was a part of the ecosystem, working with it, in times of abundance the population grew, of scarcity, the population diminished. In many places it seems the population remained steady over very long periods of time.

And in those where the population grew inproportionately, too often alongside technology, the civilisation collapsed (Mayan collapse hypothesis etc). Trade, technology and the globalised world have yet again shifted this balance, it has gone skewy.

If populations were still contained, if food were a merely localised entity, the ratio of food to population would be and would remain coherent. Today, existing on a massive, indeed global scale in multiple forms, the food industry, like hunger appears to have taken on a life of its own. It is an issue that Johnstone appears to highlight, one cannot grasp Hunger, nor its causes, the theories are as numerous as they are cerebral. Yet, until the question is palpable, grasp-able and practical it is un-solvable. It is my opinion that agriculture and food have to be returned to a practical and practicable, local level before the question can be grasped. To do this, before imposing it elsewhere, we have to call into question our own practices.

On moral:

Our political, economic and ethical systems incentivise technological development and individual wealth over genuine human equality. If we really wanted to address people’s hunger, we would change these systems, and the systems of thought that underpin them. Hunger is becoming one of the great moral failures of the 21st century.

Referring to “the systems of thought that underpin our political, economic and ethical systems” Johnstone is speaking abstractly. But, I sense a nuance of something emerging, a nuance of something angry and idealist, is he perhaps blaming the thought-structure of the Capitalist system?

I am convinced that hunger, in its myriad forms, is the result of our own blind greed. Were it to be plotted on a graph, I am sure there would be a direct correlation between obesity in the developed world and malnutrition in the developing. [Not to ignore that hunger is present in the developed world as the developing]. Are we that ignorant to not realise that by participating in the food industry as it is we are collaborating in world hunger? We ease our moral conscience with gimmicky good deeds, we smile self-righteously, we totally ignore that we – you, me, are the cause. We go as far (for example) as persuading ourselves that by eating Kenyan green beans we are providing employment for Kenyans, it is therefore morally correct. I am not convinced. This attitude does not reflect the multiple and intricate effects of this sort of detached consuming – the workload, the treatment, the minimal wage of the Kenyan bean-grower; the environmental effect of the pesticides and fertilisers used – loss of topsoil, erosion of landscape, poisoning of air and rivers (fortunately not in our back garden); not to mention the effect of these hazardous products on the workers themselves; the carbon footprint of farming, fertilising, packaging, importing, chilling the beans… We choose to be ignorant, it is so much more comfortable.

If the West were to release their hold, if they were to relax their control, if the West were to let go of their power… Inconceivable, and, as with Iraq, Afghanistan, it’s too late, we’re implicated, we’re in too deep. But that is how I see the situation, to tell the truth, right now I see development as a total farce, a psychology of power employed by the West to keep what it wants for itself and to keep those in poorer countries providing for us, impoverished and dependent on our aid – not unlike the days of the immensely rich and powerful Church attended by the poor.

I find our methods to put an end to hunger unconvincing. Until we as a group of united nations consider how much we really want justice and equity, how much we are willing to forsake, the wealth/lifestyle distinction between “us” and “them” will remain, and hunger will persist.

The information quoted is taken from Harry Johnstone’s article.
‘Hunger’ by Harry Johnstone is published on

‘The True Cost of Cheap Food’ by Timothy A. Wise appeared in Resurgence Magazine no.259 March/April 2010.


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