In the midst of a pandemic due to covid-19, the latest UN report on hunger and nutrition it leaves us with a bleak picture that only contributes to making it worse: hunger continues to increase in the world and only the rich can afford a healthy diet, which represents at least five times more of the paltry $ 1.90 on which millions subsist every day of poor people around the world. In reality, nearly 3 billion people (almost half of the world’s population!) Cannot afford to buy healthy and nutritious food (fruits, vegetables, fish and other proteins of animal and vegetable origin) because these products are, in general, , five times more expensive than basic products such as cereals or sugar, which provide energy low in nutrients. They simply don’t have the money to buy them. The report emphasizes that hunger and poor nutrition have continued to grow five years ago, when countries pledged to so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), among them to eradicate hunger.
The Severe Food Insecurity indicator presented in the report, which is equivalent to the perception of hunger, points out that at least one day in 2019, 750 million people could not eat! And the Moderate Food Insecurity indicator shows that another 1.25 billion people ate poorly. Together, severe and moderate food insecurity affect nearly 2 billion people – that is, one in four inhabitants of the planet – who had restrictions on being able to eat in 2019. The report indicates that no improvements have been achieved in the The problem of childhood overweight and that obesity in adults is increasing in all regions of the world. That can compromise our future generations and increase deaths in the pandemic because obesity is a recognized ally of covid-19.
But one of the great novelties of the report is the finding that the world produces more than enough basic foods (the so-called commodities: wheat, corn, soybeans, rice) but not enough fruits, vegetables and animal protein necessary to cover the minimum daily intake of 400 grams recommended by FAO and WHO. Only some countries in Asia, the rich countries of Europe and North America are able to produce fruits and vegetables at an affordable price for their population. In other words, only developed countries produce enough to supply their population with healthy food.
The reality, in today’s context, is that only the rich can eat healthy and nutritiously. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 57% of people cannot afford the cost of a healthy diet because they earn less per day than it costs; In Brazil, 25% of the population, one in four people, earn less per day than they would have to pay for a healthy meal.
Only some countries in Asia, the rich countries of Europe and North America are able to produce fruits and vegetables at an affordable price for their population
In addition to a moral imperative, there are a thousand reasons to promote the adoption of healthier diets for everyone: together with the improvement of global health, doing so would have very important positive impacts for the planet and for the climate. If people could afford healthier and more nutritious diets, public health spending associated with unhealthy diets could be reduced by almost 50%, and the greenhouse gases associated with the food sector would decrease between 40 and 70% by 2030.
The UN report states that to improve access to nutritious and healthy food, its cost must be lowered. Better quality and nutritious products are undoubtedly more expensive. But for people to be able to access them there is another way, which is to increase their income, particularly the wages of workers. The wages paid today in agriculture and other sectors in many countries are miserable. I mean, it’s not that the food is expensive, it’s that the salaries are alarmingly low. Improving wages would be another way to combat hunger: there is no shortage of food, there is no money to buy it!
This idea is not new: Henry Ford, inventor of the Ford T, said that he wanted to produce a car that his employees could drive. That was the motto of capitalism in its beginnings: that it be proportional to everyone, including employees and workers, who allowed the opportunity to enjoy what they produced thanks to their work. So improving income distribution by raising basic wages is what we really need to eradicate hunger in the world.
The new UN report also recommends a review of agricultural policies and subsidies to encourage the production of healthy food, a fundamental issue that mainly affects developed countries that heavily subsidize their agricultural products, especially those commodities. It would be advisable to direct subsidies to fruits, vegetables and other fresh products.
There is also important scope for improving policies that promote a change in eating habits, and that entail a food re-education, essential to tackle the obesity pandemic facing the world today.
Low wages only contribute to misery and hunger
I want to insist on this idea: low food prices are the cause of hunger suffered by a large part of family farmers in developing countries in Africa and Latin America, and are also, in part, a result of the subsidies they provide rich countries to their farmers. Keeping wages low in agriculture only contributes to maintaining misery and hunger.
The belief that low food prices solve the problem of hunger does not hold up: hunger fell a lot in the period between 2008 and 2014, which was when food prices soared, rising rapidly in the international market. The causality is precisely the opposite: wages are low, and therefore food prices have to be low for people to survive. This is why millions of poor people around the world are forced to eat junk food (or junk): ultra-processed products of poorer quality and very energetic, and they cannot afford animal protein or fruits and vegetables, which are the healthiest foods.
Let’s make an effort. In this post-pandemic “new normal” we cannot allow ourselves to repeat the same mistakes of the past if we want to achieve Zero Hunger and a healthy and sustainable diet for all by 2030. We must reduce social inequality, starting with raising basic wages to allow everyone can afford a healthy diet.
José Graziano da Silvahas been general director of theFAO (2011-2019) and extraordinary minister for Food Security in Brazil.