According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one-third of the world's population is well-fed, one-third is under-fed and the last one-third is seriously malnourished or starving. This does not have to be so because about 1.3 billion tons of foodstuffs per year is wasted, mostly in North America, Europe and industrialized Asian countries. The result of lack of malnutrition and clean water for 1.5 billion people on this planet has enormous costs ranging from economic to sociopolitical.
The World Bank report on food waste shows that 25-33% of food goes to waste on a global scale, most of it watsed by the end user, while a percentage is also wasted in the production and conservation stages of food.
The World Health Organization (WHO) provides the following statistic regarding the effects of unsafe drinking water on the masses.
- 1.6 million people die every year from diarrhoeal diseases (including cholera) attributable to lack of access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation and 90% of these are children under 5, mostly in developing countries.
- 160 million people are infected with schistosomiasis causing tens of thousands of deaths yearly; 500 million people are at risk of trachoma from which 146 million are threatened by blindness and 6 million are visually impaired.
It is ironic that food waste is a problem in advanced countries where the malnourished population is also growing. However, it is not as ironic as it appears once we examine that there is profit in waste, while there is no profit in solving the problem of food and clean water that plagues billions of people. In two separate studies in 2004 and 2013, it becomes evident that about 40% of food in the US is wasted, that is to say, it is thrown out as waste at a cost of $165 to $180 billion, according to the Department of Agriculture and EPA.
Given that an estimated $1 to $1.3 billion is spent to dispose of food waste representing 12% of solid waste, and given that 15% of the wasted food could feed 25 million people, the question is whether there is a way to feed the hungry population - one in six Americans - and reduce food waste that is costly to dispose and produces methane gas that is 21 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide and accounts for 25% of methane emissions. One could logically argue that if people want to waste 40% of the food they purchase, there is nothing that can be done, other than forcing them to dispose of it in a separate container for collection. The only thing that communities can do is to introduce more educational programs about food waste, which drives prices higher, wastes more resources, including energy, and pollutes the environment.
Under the existing political economy, the motive is to concentrate capital, and solving the food and clean water problem costs the taxpayers and does not provide a profit motive for the private sector wishing to have a role in food and water issues for the poor only if there is a profit motive. For example, it is more profitable to use corn that is is abundance as bio-fuel, animal feed, and value added products rather than to feed those starving. Why does the US use 40% of corn for bio-fuel and a large percentage for animal feed? Because it is profitable to do so. The same goes for Brazil where poverty runs between 25 and 30%.
The use of bio-fuels sends prices higher and results in greater market pressure on foodstuffs for the masses suffering from malnutrition. One could argue that the government ought not to pay to subsidize foodstuffs to feed the malnourished. The reality is that governments, including the US, spend billions subsidizing bio-fuels for corporations. Therefore, while social welfare is something that people oppose, they seem to have no reaction to corporate welfare, given that the US government alone paid more than $33 billion to oil companies for ethanol, and much more to agri-business for value-added products to make them competitive. Moreover, the US export subsidies intended to make US products competitive globally cost the taxpayer roughly $20 billion, and just to be balanced, we have similar sort of subsidies and tax breaks on the part of other industrialized nations that also engage in corporate welfare policies. These subsidies to corporations are just fine, but feeding starving children is an anathema because it is simply not profitable to keep them alive.
Clearly, while the short-term solution to those in need of clean water and food is aid, the long-term solution is assistance to become self-reliant. The UN, World Bank, EU and US have programs to introduce greater self-reliance on food and water, but all of those are market-based, commercially-oriented programs rooted in the neoliberal ideology. Anything that even resembles cooperative farming with a socialized-communitarian orientation is something that the industrialized countries oppose, because it is outside the boundaries of the profit-based system. Meanwhile, wasting 40% of food in the US is acceptable because it is a healthy sign of frivolous consumption on which the market economy is based.
What is to be Done?
While humanitarian assistance is something for which there will always be a need, it is not a permanent solution to the problem. It is indeed great that there are private and governmental organizations that offer food and water assistance, no matter their motives behind their gift-giving efforts. Among the proposed solutions out there, some constructive, others cynical, are the following:
1. reduce poverty by reducing the poor through birth control methods;
2. reduce food hunger by raising food aid in the top 20 richest nations;
3. support the " Millennium Development Goals that the United Nations has set for the 21st century;
4. UN and other international organization like the World Bank and NGO's working close together with governments to reduce poverty through self-help efforts at the local level;
5. introduce more genetically-engineered products that can provide daily nutrition for the masses;
6. World Trade Organization efforts to reduce poverty by promoting greater trade liberalization under neoliberal policy regimes;
7. grassroots action and collaboration with interested groups working toward the same goal;
8. change the political system that perpetuate widespread poverty so that the problem can be solved once and for all;
9. accept poverty as God's way of proving that there are limitations to human achievements, including preventing thousands of children dying of hunger every day.
10. feeding the hungry is a global communal responsibility, and allowing them to suffer and die of starvation a reflection of our values and who we are.
In response to a critic on LINKEDIN.com who asked me what is to be done?
By no means should you do not away with pets that indeed bring comfort to you. Nor is there any point feeling guilty that babies die because of starvation, because your guilt will not save them. Nor do I blame you for feeling fed up with homeless people begging outside the station. It makes one feel very bad seeing them there, begging day after day, because deep inside you fear they are the ugly side of humanity's mirror. Trying to save the starving children, the homeless, etc. is a monumental moral responsibility that cannot possibly fall on your shoulders, not on any individual's shoulders. This is a collective responsibility that must come through government policy, especially on the part of the G-20 - richest 20 nations.
Just as we all agree - even those of us who have no problem with moral relativism - that it is immoral to kill babies, we can agree that governments must adopt policies that reduce the dramatic rate of people, especially children, dying of hunger and lack of clean water. Government policy is the only solution. As much as humanitarian efforts help to deal with the immediate problem in targeted areas, the only permanent solution is a collective effort via the UN or NGO's perhaps, to reduce the serious problem of food and clean water problem.