An interview with the UN's FAO assistant director-general: World hunger report shows number of malnourished rising

At first glance, there is little to be optimistic about in the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization annual hunger report. Some 37 million people were dropped from the ranks of the hungry during the early 1990s. But the report claims the trend was reversed in the second half of the decade when 18 million were added to the roll call of the chronically malnourished. With this sobering news, the World Food Summit's 1996 goal of halving the world's undernourished by 2015 is unattainable.

But the raw numbers hide a significant amount of hope. Some developing countries have turned the corner and their citizens are better fed and more economically secure. Hartwig de Haen wants such security for all.

Following the Nov. 25 release of the report, de Haen, FAO assistant director-general in the Economic and Social Department, spoke with Farm Press on how fighting world hunger benefits industrialized nations, the AIDS devastation in farming communities around the world, and his views on Western agriculture subsidies. He stressed several times that when addressing “the West” he was speaking about modernized, industrialized nations collectively — not just the United States. Among the questions and answers:

FP: Could you give us a brief summary of the latest FAO report on world hunger? According to the statistics I've seen, there was actually a setback in fighting world hunger. Is that an accurate assessment?

de Haen: It is an accurate assessment if we look at total numbers. But behind the numbers, there is good news and not-so-good news.

Let me begin with the good news. About 19 developing countries have managed to reduce chronic hunger by more than 80 million people during the 1990s. This includes big countries like China and Brazil, but also smaller ones like Vietnam, Thailand and Ghana.

Secondly, if we look over the decade of the 90s, developing countries have managed to reduce the number of the hungry by 20 million.

Third, 22 countries have succeeded in turning a poor trend into a positive direction. In the first half of the 1990s, these countries saw an increase in their hungry. After 1996 — which coincided with the World Food Summit — these countries reduced the number of their hungry. Included in this category are Bangladesh and Haiti.

However, there are facts and developments that are rightly cause for concern. First, according to our estimates, 842 million people are chronically — chronically! — undernourished. On top of those, there are the problems caused by conflicts and food emergencies due to natural disasters. Of these 842 million, almost 800 million live in developing nations. There are about 10 million in rich, industrialized countries and some 34 million in countries in transition like those in central and Eastern Europe (formerly of the Soviet Union).

Two large countries have contributed to the aggregate number of chronically malnourished being on the increase: India and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These two have very different situations causing this.

India, in general, has successful agricultural policies and has maintained the percentage of their undernourished — it hasn't gone up. But the population growth has more than off-set the good policies.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, citizens are faced with military conflicts and disruptions. This is well known.

If we take these two countries out of the total, then the aggregate total shifts down remarkably.

FP: Are there common bonds between the countries that are doing better?

de Haen: This is true, indeed. These countries have much fewer conflicts and higher political stability.

Secondly, countries that reduced hunger have had significantly higher economic growth. To put a number on it, 2.6 percent average annual growth in these countries compared to but a half percent annual growth in countries where hunger is on the rise.

Third, the economic growth of these successful countries is based on agriculture. These countries are investing in water and other things that benefit agriculture. Their GDP growth in agriculture was 2.6 percent per anum whereas countries with rising hunger had less than half that percentage.

Another factor is that successful countries clearly had a higher index of social development. This is seen in nutrition programs at village level and where they have social safety nets. Vietnam is a good example of this as is Thailand. These countries have programs that provide their hungry and suffering with immediate access to food and education of many kinds.

This social safety net component is very important in our view. There is more and more evidence that you can't just say “hunger will go away when poverty is reduced.” Hunger is also the cause of poverty and therefore hunger must be reduced first and then poverty will go away. Direct measures helping the undernourished means they become more productive, boosts them into the labor market and allows children to focus better on their studies. These are very important components of overall success.

FP: I understand there is also a link between food emergency situations and high rates of disease and AIDS.

de Haen: You are completely right. The symptoms of HIV/AIDS can be slowed if the sick are properly nourished. Better nutrition can prevent infection. People who aren't hungry will be less likely to resort to risky desperation. Nourished women are less obliged to seek other means of garnering food for their families — including selling their bodies, migrating to city slums and so on. Better nutrition contributes to people not being exposed to AIDS.

Secondly, nutrition can contribute to keeping those who are exposed to realizing symptoms. A proper diet makes the body stronger.

We have calculated and projected that until 2020, AIDS will have reduced the agricultural labor force in most southern African nations. Already, some two-thirds of the farms in these countries have lost labor force due to AIDS. Often, the middle generation has perished. In some villages, only children and the elderly are left.

Under these circumstances, labor becomes a bottleneck in fighting hunger. Knowledge of how to farm is also being lost. This has led to entire rural institutional breakdown. We're trying to introduce programs to help cope with this. But we're still in the midst of a disaster — we must still find a way to feed these people first.

I believe those who are alive have a right to eat and be helped.

FP: On the abandoned African fields… most Americans, living in the lap of luxury by comparison, find it hard to understand the scope of the problem. I assume you have traveled to such devastated areas. Can you put a face to what you've seen on these farms?

de Haen: I have seen unforgettable things. I have visited with an elderly woman who was surrounded by seven grandchildren all between the ages of six months and 11 years. This poor grandmother was the only adult left alive in the family — AIDS had devastated them. All the parents of these children had died. These eight had nothing and were simply trying to survive. The children had to work to eat and the grandmother not only had the burden of caring for these children, but also worried because she was unwell and at risk of dying herself. Can you imagine her despair?

This sad sight is repeated all over Africa. Without external help there is absolutely no hope that the situation can be put right. It is dramatically tragic. We must help the suffering.

FP: Can you comment on how you view Western government programs relating to agriculture?

de Haen: I want to address the agricultural policies of not only the U.S. and the EU but also those of Japan and other Asian countries known to provide major support to agriculture. In the (industrialized) countries, direct subsidies to farmers amount to $235 billion every year. The money spent on research and things like that are questioned by no one.

But a considerable amount goes to programs that lead to more production. That affects world markets and means lower prices.

You will recall that, at the WTO meetings in Cancun, some western African countries drew attention to cotton. I think the contribution of farmers in rich countries — and I'm not speaking of the United States in particular — where production-related subsidies are in evidence, should be to lessen pressure on politicians to continue these types of subsidies.

It would benefit the world if decoupled payments were the norm instead. This would mean funds going directly to the farmers or rural communities. The WTO has a mechanism — the “green box” — that is accepted as transfer that is less, or minimally decoupled with production incentives.

Farmers (from the developed world) would do their colleagues in poorer countries a tremendous favor if they'd accept a different form of agricultural policy; a policy where payments aren't coupled with production. That would be a huge service because we must understand that amongst the poorest and most undernourished in the world, many are farmers. These poor often make less than $1 per day — to us, this is unimaginable. For them, a good price on the market and less competition from imports is vital for their independence and survival.

FP: Can you also comment on drought and explain the term “virtual water.”

de Haen: When we speak of virtual water, we are talking about how imports of food can be a way of saving water in drought-stricken countries. North Africa is a huge grain importer. They import from the U.S., from Europe and Eastern Europe. This region has an extreme lack of water. We have calculated that if they didn't import grain, it would take a year's worth of the Nile's flow to produce the grain currently being imported. So, one way to look at these imports is to say they're actually saving water.

As your readers know, water is vital for growing crops. But many countries still aren't using their water resources well in growing crops. Many regions in Africa have less than 4 percent of their cropland under irrigation.

Conversely, China is at 50 percent irrigation. The success in China and other Asian nations in terms of stability and positive agricultural growth is partly explained by better water management.

FP: You are asking Western farmers to accept major changes in subsidies and pricing structure. What do you think are the chances they will accept this? Many feel any such attempts are simply a grab at money in their pockets. It's a difficult sell, surely.

de Haen: There is a need for a movement to change the form of agricultural support without taking money from farmers' pockets. In such a system, no reduction of farmer income will happen — just a more efficient system in getting it to them. Mainly, that means not insisting farmers increase production in order to benefit from subsidies. Direct payments or payments in compensation for environmental services, support for social security systems, Extension services, and rural infrastructure can still be done but won't depend on tons of wheat or maize sold.

Such a decoupling means Western farmers could work without losing benefits but would still help those in developing nations.

FP: How are you getting this message out?

de Haen: It's difficult because there is a fear among larger farmers that they would lose ground. They fear there would be a redistribution of wealth within their own agricultural community. How this is resolved within each country is that country's business.

But I want to appeal to farmers to understand that, in a sense of solidarity, there are fellow farmers in other parts of the world who need a fair and even playing field to survive. They need these changes not to buy unneeded equipment, not to build a mansion — but to supply basic needs for their families: eating, clothing, perhaps sending their child to school. We in the West are not alone and our actions here affect the poverty stricken across the ocean.

FP: So, after putting together this report, do you feel more hope or more despair?

de Haen: It's a mixed feeling. I'm encouraged because so many countries have improved their situation. But I'm not optimistic without limits. It's undeniable: on balance, the total numbers of the hungry have increased.

If the model of successful countries makes its way through communications — such as this report — into underdeveloped nations, then my optimism will rise. I believe what's important to understand is the benefits of a less-hungry world are for all — rich and poor alike. Less hunger means less political instability around the world and more trade and purchasing power. These are worthy goals.

(Editor's note: to see the FAO world hunger report, visit

e-mail: [email protected]

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