Hunger about more than food production, FAO Conference hears

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen calls for broader approach to ending hunger

15 June 2013, Rome - If the world wants to conquer hunger, it needs to tackle all the causes of hunger simultaneously particularly poverty, and not just concentrate on producing more food, Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics, told the opening session of the FAO Conference.

Delivering the McDougall Memorial Lecture on food security, Sen said:  "The main factors behind the continuation of world hunger include the huge continuation of poverty, despite the increasing prosperity of the modern world in terms of averages and totals."

"But poverty can be exacerbated by problems in the production side partly because of food supply falling behind food demand tends to raise food prices, which can make many families much poorer, given their incomes," Sen said. 

He pointed out that hunger and undernourishment are not uniform in a country, community, family or even among individuals within the same family. In analyzing causes of hunger, Sen added, governments will need to take into account "social norms and established conventions of sharing" especially between men and women, boys and girls.

Sen won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his groundbreaking theory that hunger and starvation result from some people not having access to enough food - what he called entitlement - not because there is not enough food available in the country or region.

FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said in his introductory remarks that Amartya Sen's approach has shifted the debate on hunger from food production to access to food and from charity to a rights-based approach and it has transformed the way we fight hunger and poverty today.

African hunger

In his lecture, Sen said Africa was not experiencing steadily rising per capita food availability, as Asia is. In Africa, per capita food production was only 4 per cent higher in 2011 compared with the average of 2004-6, and was 2 per cent lower in 2010.

"Hence it is right to attach importance to policy initiatives that raise food production in Africa rather more robustly than has been happening," he said.

Sen urged Africa countries to consider diversifying their economies, including through industrialization.

"For the long-run economic stability and security of Africa, economic diversification is quite crucial," he said. "There is absolutely no reason to believe that unlike all other people across the world, Africans somehow cannot industrialize successfully. To hold that view as a canon of faith comes close to, I fear, an odd kind of racism."

Overcoming military and civil strife, expanding democratic governance, and also developing market institutions, are further conditions that are needed to end hunger in Africa.

The role of public policy must also cover the expansion of health care, family planning facilities, basic education, especially of women, and social security provisions," Sen said. "All these can contribute - directly and indirectly - to nutritional security, to good health care, and to a more successful overall economy, including a healthy agricultural sector."
Health care, education and hunger

Sen targeted maternal undernourishment, which he said not only ruined the health of the mothers but caused serious health problems for low-birth-weight children. "To prevent persistent undernutrition attention has to be paid to health care, in general, and in particular to the prevention of endemic diseases that deter the absorption of nutrients," he said. 

"There is also plenty of evidence to indicate that lack of basic education too contributes to undernourishment, partly because knowledge and communication are important, but also because the ability to secure jobs and incomes are influenced by the level of education."

Summing up his speech, Sen said that: "These different influences, which operate together, demand that we do not isolate just one of those factors, and simply concentrate on that. We have to do many different things - together." 

Frank Lidgett McDougall, an Australian citizen, was one of the founders of FAO. Every two years, before the FAO Conference, the McDougall Lecture is delivered by a prominent personality working in the field of agriculture and hunger alleviation.

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
Amartya Sen addresses FAO Conference.