Food For All In The 21st Century By Gordon Conway
Gordon Conway is president of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City. His expertise is in the field of agricultural ecology. This article is drawn from his most recent book. The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century (Ithaca. N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 1998). Conway is a former contributing editor of Environment. He can be contacted at the Rockefeller Foundation, 420 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10018.
For most of the industrialized countries, there does not seem to be a food problem. They produce a surfeit of food, and health problems have more to do with being overweight than with hunger. In the rest of the world there are periodic famines, but few in the industrialized countries realize that millions of people lack enough food most days of their lives.1 The Green Revolution was one of the great success stories of the second half of the 20th century. Food production in developing countries kept pace with population growth. Yet today about 800 million people, or some 15 percent of the world's population, get less than 2000 calories per day and live a life of permanent or intermittent hunger and are chronically undernourished.2 Many of the hungry are women and children. More than 180 million children under five years of age are underweight, that is, they are more than two standard deviations below the standard weight for their age. This represents one-third of the under-fives in the developing countries. Young children cruically need food because they are growing fast and, once weaned, are liable to succumb to infections. Seventeen million children under five die each year, and malnourishment contributes to at least one-third of these children's deaths. Lack of protein. vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients in the diet is also widespread. About 100 million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency.3 As has long been known, lack of this vitamin can cause eye damage. Half a million children become partially or totally blind each year, and many subsequently die. As recent research has shown, lack of vitamin A has an even more serious and pervasive effect, apparently reducing the ability of children's immune systems to cope with infection. Iron deficiency is also common in developing countries, affecting one billion people. More than 400 million women of childbearing age (15-49 years old) are afflicted by anemia caused by iron deficiency. As a result, they tend to produce stillborn or underweight children and are more likely to die in childbirth. Anemia has been identified as a contributing factor in more than 20 percent of all postpartum maternal deaths in Asia and Africa. Paradoxically, hunger is common despite 20 years of rapidly declining world food prices. Although in many developing countries there is enough food to meet demand, large numbers of people still go hungry. Food prices are low, yet they remain high relative to the earning capacity of the poor. Market demand is satisfied, but there are many who are unable to purchase the food they need and, hence, to them the market is irrelevant. Not surprisingly, hunger is closely related to poverty. To the casual observer, poverty seems to be worse in the cities but, in reality, the urban poor fare better. To quote one statistic, the incidence of malnutrition is five times higher in the sierra of Peru than in the capital, Lima. About 130 million of the poorest 20 percent of developing country populations live in urban settlements, most of them in slums and squatter settlements. Yet 650 million of the poorest live in rural areas. In sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, most of the poor are rural poor.4 Some live in rural areas with high agricultural potential and high population densitiesthe Gangetic plain of India and the island of Java. But the majority, about 370 million, live where the agricultural potential is relatively low and natural resources are poor, such as the Andean highlands and the...
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