Hunger: The Oldest Problem by Martín Caparrós (Translated from Spanish by Katherine Silver) - review by Henrietta L Moore

Henrietta L Moore

Feed the World

Hunger: The Oldest Problem


Melville House 544pp £30 order from our bookshop

The vast majority of the world’s hungry are farmers. In a world of such ironies, many turn to faith or fate to explain affliction and its consequences. The mothers Martín Caparrós interviews don’t know why their children are ill, but they don’t believe it’s because they are not feeding them. They often go without food to provide for their children, whose wasting and listlessness must be explained by other misfortunes or the will of God. In the depths of Niger a young woman patiently explains that she feeds her child fura (a ball of fermented millet flour and water) every day. It’s what she herself eats after all. Hunger in the young is often the result of hunger in the mother.

Women make up 60 per cent of the hungry worldwide; children are born underweight and their undernourished mothers don’t have enough milk to feed them. Poor nutrition in the first thousand days of life is associated with delayed cognitive development, impaired physical growth and, in later life, poor productivity and a greater risk of developing illnesses, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes, that may be transmitted to the next generation. Hunger preys not just on those alive now, but also on those who are yet to come. How does one eliminate hunger? Can we reach zero hunger by 2030 and achieve the second of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals?

How do those of us who have enough to eat account for hunger? We often imagine it’s about drought, famine, lack of rain, corruption and incompetence. We need to be much more imaginative. Hunger is about land-grabbing, cartels, early marriage, immunisation, genetically modified crops, child development, slums, climate change, subsidies, chemical pollution, derivative markets, deforestation, child labour, food banks and much, much more. Systemic hunger is about the failure of our food systems and the fact that one half of the world is eating the food of the other half. This is not new. In the 19th century, Europe improved its food availability and quality by importing foodstuffs grown elsewhere. Paul McMahon’s book Feeding Frenzy (2013) provides a slightly whimsical example of a London worker in the era of Sherlock Holmes who consumes bread made from North American wheat, beer brewed from Canadian barley, butter from Ireland, marmalade from Spain and tea from India sweetened with sugar from the Caribbean.

Hunger is also about the failure of our economic systems. Between 1980 and 2010, the proportion of international aid provided to Africa that was designated for farming fell from 17 to 5 per cent. Structural adjustment programmes forced African countries to open their doors to cheap imported food from countries that were subsidising their own farmers and to turn their land over to the production of coffee, tea, cotton and other crops for the global market. Farmers lost buyers for their own agricultural products and stopped producing their own food. Those with nothing to sell moved off the land and into the cities, searching for a better life. Before the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), almost all the corn consumed in Guatemala was produced there. Once NAFTA had been signed, Caparrós observes, ‘American surplus corn was sold at extremely cheap prices, and the local peasants couldn’t compete’. In the context of the climate emergency, the waste, discrimination and profligacy of such a system seems positively suicidal. In 2017, African countries spent $64.5 billion importing food. They will probably spend even more in the coming years.

Peru is the world’s largest producer of quinoa, which has been cultivated in the Andean region for over seven thousand years. But its recent adoption as a health food has meant that its price in Peru has more than tripled. It’s now too expensive for farmers to eat, so they have turned to less expensive and less nutritious foods. As prices have risen, the pressure on the land has built. Intensive production of such crops undermines biodiversity and soil quality. The operations of the global food system have destabilising effects. Demand for avocados is outstripping supply. In Mexico, avocados are becoming the new blood diamonds, igniting conflict and kindling cartel rivalry. This puts strain on the land: protected woodlands are being cut down to raise production. Child labour, meanwhile, is increasingly used to cut costs. The manufacture of biofuels, itself a response to climate change, requires the taking of land that could be used to grow food. Inevitably, those who suffer most are the poor, and they are already hungry.

As Caparrós points out, 820 million people in the world are hungry; a further two billion could be added to this number by 2050. What makes his book so compelling is that it is full of the stories of ordinary people whose lives are blighted by hunger. He sets these stories amid a detailed and well-researched analysis of the structures that make hunger so deeply rooted. Each of his tales, whether from Ethiopia, India, the USA, Bangladesh or Argentina, will make your heart ache for the horror of it all.

But Caparrós doesn’t have time for bleeding hearts. He reserves much of his anger for humanitarianism, liberal concern and academics who spend their time emphasising the complexity of the situation. Saying that our food systems are in crisis does not move the debate along at all and changes nothing. It makes not one whit of difference to the lives that are being lived in immiseration and being needlessly lost. Caparrós returns time and time again to a series of questions: How the hell do we manage to live knowing these things are happening? How the hell do we manage to live? How the hell?

Caparrós is angry. I am angry. But our anger matters not. There are no answers to world hunger in the book. There couldn’t be because the status quo depends on there not being any, as Caparrós makes so chillingly clear. The numbers are horrifying: every four seconds a person dies of starvation, malnutrition or a hunger-related disease. We have to change the status quo, at which point perhaps there will be the beginning of a glimmer of hope. It is a question of will. We produce enough food to feed everyone, and yet we don’t.

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