When hunger is self-inflicted

In India, millions of tonnes of wheat are lost every year because of poor harvesting and inadequate infrastructure

In India, millions of tonnes of wheat are lost every year because of poor harvesting and inadequate infrastructure

Unfortunately, the farming revolution is proving to be more elusive than the one that deposes dictators.

Hunger is one of the 169 development targets adopted by the United Nations but for poor countries, it is a double embarrassment. They know hunger and they cause it, too.


Middle-income developing countries such as Tunisia and Egypt and poorer ones in Sub- Saharan Africa have patchy food chains. Inefficient harvesting, inadequate storage and poor conservation result in just as much food waste as the United States’ and Europe’s habits of careless consumption.

Together, they are the reason that one in every nine people — 795 million people — goes to bed hungry.

In 2011, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisa­tion estimated that about one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — is lost or wasted. It said that industrialised and developing countries dissipate about the same quantities of food — 670 million and 630 million tonnes, respectively.

Bjorn Lomborg, who founded the Copenhagen Consen­sus Center think-tank, which deliberates on issues such as global hunger, says 60 of the world’s leading econo­mists estimate we could feed 1 billion more people at current food production levels if waste was reduced by half.

This is no exaggeration if one considers how common it is to see crates of tomatoes being trucked into Cairo unprotected, uselessly raining some of their delicious goodness on to the road with every pothole or speed bump. Or the fact that Tunisia’s fabulous Angeer peaches last for just the season and aren’t made into branded jams and jellies or canned as slices or whole fruit for the world to eat later. Or that as much as 40% of all the fruit, vegetables and food grains grown in India never make it to the market. They go to waste.

There is a basic reason for this. India has too few grain silos, compared to, say, Canada. And governments in Tunisia and Egypt have generally taken a so-called trade-based view of food security . This has led them to reserve vast tracts of land for production of high-value, low-nutrition food­stuffs for export.

They pay less heed to growing, harvesting, selling and conserving food staples and consequently invest less in agricultural effi­ciency or a properly linked supply chain. It’s another matter that Tunisia hasn’t properly leveraged its bumper olive crop even though olive oil is a high-value export product if properly branded and bottled. More than 75% of Tuni­sia’s olive oil is exported in bulk to Italy and Spain, where it is mixed with local oil before being marketed as their product. European importers are said to be leery of slapping on “Produced in Tunisia” labels.

Finding a way for poor countries to balance agribusiness with primary agriculture is a smarter way to feed the planet while promoting sustainable income for farmers. The farm-to-fork (or fingers) chain needs proper roads from fields to markets, trains and planes to move produce effi­ciently to processing plants and reliable electricity to keep produce at optimum temperatures or dry grains quickly. There must be adequate irrigation so the hundreds of thousands of Tuni­sians, for instance, who make their living from the olive oil business don’t have to rely on the vagaries of rain clouds.

The alternative is stark and is not just about hunger. It can mean massive social unrest and this is probably best illustrated by Sidi Bouzid in south-western Tunisia where Mohamed Bouazizi committed suicide on December 17, 2010, triggering the revolt that led to the downfall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the “Arab spring”. Bouazizi’s story, as Tunisian-born geographer Habib Ayeb and African Studies profes­sor Ray Bush have pointed out, is “illustrative of rural dispossession and wealth transfer” prompted by “the exclusion of small farmers”. Unsustainable agribusiness created a “green mirage”, they wrote, forcing people such as Bouazizi’s family to mortgage their land and lose their liveli­hood. It is a salutary story, one common in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere but, unfortunately, the farming revolution is proving to be more elusive than the one that deposes dictators.

 Rashmee Roshan Lall is an itinerant commentator on world affairs. She blogs at www. rashmee.com and is on Twitter: @rashmeerl.