Sometimes something happens that can have a fundamental impact on mankind, but passes largely unnoticed at the time. Such an event occurred in December last year in Rome. The council of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) decided that the organization’s goal should no longer be merely to reduce hunger, but to eradicate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. The next step will be to confirm this change in June at the FAO Conference, in which all member countries participate.
To many, this small change of wording must seem trivial. Critics will also say that adopting such a goal without setting a target date for achieving it is largely meaningless. Others may claim that even the idea of eradicating hunger is nonsense, because we lack the means to do it.
For the last 12 years, the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015 has been the driving force for hunger reduction. The proportion of hungry people in developing countries has declined significantly — from 23.2 percent in 1990 to 1992 to 14.9 percent today. However, this decrease owes more to a rise in the world’s population than it does to the slight reduction in the actual number of hungry people (from about 980 million to 852 million).
A “halving” goal has only slight political appeal, as it implicitly condemns the excluded half to a life on the fringes of society, exposed to illness and premature death. Brazil’s Zero Hunger strategy, by contrast, has shown that adopting the absolute goal of hunger eradication provides a powerful means of galvanizing government departments into large-scale coordinated action, and of mobilizing society in a truly national effort to end one of the greatest injustices of our time.
To be sure, it will be increasingly difficult — though far from impossible — to meet the world’s growing demand for food and to do this in sustainable ways. Additional food must be produced using technologies that do not damage the natural resources that future generations will need in order to feed themselves; that do not fuel climate change, which weighs heavily on farmers; and that do not accelerate the disintegration of the delicate fabric of rural society.
However, the challenge may not be as daunting as it seems. The rate of population growth will be much slower than over the past 50 years and there is much room for reducing the vast quantities of food that are now wasted. Moreover, as people’s incomes rise, they might more easily be persuaded to adopt healthier and more environmentally friendly diets than those taken up in the developed world. The double burden of malnutrition — with hunger existing alongside obesity, diabetes and other diseases of overconsumption — clearly shows the increasing importance of global dietary rebalancing.
There is nothing really new about a commitment to hunger eradication. Indeed, the FAO was created in 1945 to bring about a world in which there would be “freedom from want,” which, in the words of its founders, “means the conquest of hunger and the attainment of the ordinary needs of a decent, self-respecting life.”
Because of the widespread fear in the postwar years of emerging global food shortages, the organization, and the international community as a whole, focused mainly on food production — a focus that remained essentially the same in the following decades.