Tanja Gönner, GIZ Eschborn
Prof. Gunther Hirschfelder, Universität Regensburg
Alexander Müller, IASS Potsdam

Food for everyone - but how?

Dialogue forum on 21 January 2014

Never before has the world produced as much food as it does today, yet 850 million people are still suffering from starvation. To make matters worse, excessive consumption of meat and fish are pushing more and more ecosystems into imbalance.

Entitled "Starving in the midst of abundance", the 2014 Dialogue Forums are to be held on five evenings over the course of the year and consider the subject of food supply from a variety of perspectives. The series will start off on 21 January with a discussion on how we can beat the hunger crisis. The discussion panel will include Tanja Gönner, spokeswoman of the GIZ (German agency for international cooperation), cultural scientist Prof. Gunther Hirschfelder and Alexander Müller, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS).   

Hunger has many faces and causes, not only in developing countries, but also in prosperous countries such as the USA. "In 1996, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations set the goal of halving the number of people suffering from starvation to about 450 million by the year 2015. We are a long way from achieving this goal“, admitted Alexander Müller, who served as the organisation's Deputy General Director for many years. One reason why the number of people suffering from starvation has remained high is that there has been a population explosion in developing countries. On the other hand, relatively good progress has been made toward achieving the millennium objective of halving the percentage of the world's people suffering from starvation.

Particularly worrisome for Müller is Africa: "In 1990, the continent had about 180 million people suffering from starvation, but today that number has risen to 226 million." If this trend continues unchanged, Ethiopia, for example, would have to feed more than twice as many people in 2050 as it does today. As the expert explains, however, all predictions regarding population growth are highly uncertain. According to the UN, the global population at the end of the century could be anything between 10 and 14 billion people. "When we talk about the food supply of the future, we are dealing with great uncertainties", Müller says. Factors such as prosperity, family planning or healthcare will play a major role. That is why efforts to combat hunger should avoid a one-sided focus on agriculture.

So what can be done?
"Appeals alone will not be enough. We have to analyse the current situation and take people's consumption behaviour seriously", explains Gunther Hirschfelder. Consumers follow a different logic than policymakers or healthcare experts do. Sometimes we act irrationally and eat lots of things that are bad for us. But since we live in a democracy, people are free to choose their own consumption habits even if this leads to resource bottlenecks at a global level.

Even Germany experienced hunger not that long ago. All European societies were marked by malnutrition right up until the industrial age, and even in the twentieth century, people knew famine as a result of wars. These experiences engraved themselves in our collective consciousness, and we have learned to look the other way to avoid seeing the starvation of others. Hirschfelder says critically, "In our society, we are astonishingly lax when it comes to dealing with hunger". It is developments in soil and water that will determine the food supply of the future.

But the past has also shown that completely unexpected developments – positive or negative – can occur at any time. For example, dependence on potatoes led to a famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century, but at the end of the century people living north and south of the Alps were spared such a famine because, when climatic conditions became unfavourable, they were able to compensate the failure of potato crops with grain. Hirschfelder warns against considering the future to be plannable. External effects, quantum leaps in technology or political upheaval can occur at any time, and trends believed to be certain may quickly reveal themselves to be nonsense.

Often, the factors responsible for hunger can be overcome only at the local level with the aid of organisations such as the GIZ. Tanja Gönner explains, "There are no simple answers". The GIZ works with governments directly at the local level in order to, for example, make agriculture sustainable, but also to set up regional markets. Many poor regions are even able to produce enough food, but often lack infrastructure such as streets, market places and warehouses. Tailored to suit challenges that differ from one region to another, the approaches taken by the GIZ vary widely. "This is the only way to succeed."
Methods of improving quality
According to Gönner, cultural food habits play just as much a role as soil conditions, the issue of ownership or the methods of cultivation used. She advocates integrated models that also take market access into account. Also needed are innovative forms of cooperation that, for instance, enable smallholders to negotiate on an equal footing with their customers. As one good example of such cooperation, the development expert cited contractual agriculture, in which companies guarantee farmers that their products will be bought and so gain reliable suppliers. At the same time, the two parties can consider methods of improving quality or increasing yield. "The objective is to establish long-term business relations based on mutual trust."

In Müller's opinion, "The world's food problem can be solved only if the governments in the famine regions really tackle the problem." Although India loses 4,000 children every day to malnutrition, the issue is not even on the political agenda there. Müller conceded that "Political processes take a long time and are not without contradictions". But without political pressure, it is difficult to change things. "We have the problem that hunger has no voice because the people affected often live in rural regions with no access to media." Just eliminating the existing barriers to trade would be a great help. Müller noted that "Opening markets to agricultural products from developing countries and offering fair prices can promote development in those countries". Europe must also use its influence to bring a stop to the subsidisation of food exports.

Could reducing the consumption of meat in this country help to alleviate hunger in the rest of the world? "If we were to eat a little less meat, it would benefit both the animals and our health", Müller concluded,but went on to say "That has nothing to do with world hunger." Hirschfelder concurred: "We cannot change world hunger through our individual behaviour." We should instead focus on acting responsibly. The significance of role models should not be underestimated, and we should strive to act both ethically and morally. "We have to remain open to new developments, such as breeding livestock than can make do with less feed or changes in feed that reduce the amount of methane produced by cattle", explained Hirschfelder.

Müller, too, does not wish to exclude the possibility that technological progress can solve major problems. But as long as smallholders have no secure access to land, have difficulty obtaining loans and have no means of processing their products further, everything will stay the same. "That is why I am sceptical whenever anyone claims that a certain type of seed could solve the problem of world hunger. The entire system has to change", is his conclusion.

On one thing all of the evening's speakers agreed: World hunger is far too complex to be solved with simple solutions. At the same time, there is reason for hope: We have lots of technological options and enough ways to influence outcomes.

The next Dialogue Forum will take place on 11 February and have as its theme "Will appetite for seafood dishes spell the end for most all fishes?".

CB, 27 January 2014