Probing Question: Is world hunger preventable?

hands palms up begging
Kris Litman

In 1798, British economist Thomas Malthus predicted that the world's population would soon far exceed its ability to feed itself. While similar pronouncements have been made in every generation, lack of food is not the basic problem, says David Blandford.

Blandford, professor of agricultural economics at Penn State, points to recent findings of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. As he notes, "What the FAO analysis shows is that the total supply of food is more than adequate to meet the caloric needs of the entire world's population."

Indeed, Blandford is confident that "given trends in productivity and expected technological progress this will continue to be the case as world population expands up to the point at which it will stabilize, which will be sometime in the middle of this century."

Although the United Nations Population Division foresees a global population of 9.3 billion people by 2050, Blandford believes that the chief problem with the world's food supply is not an overwhelmingly large population, but rather a lack of societal structures to properly distribute the food that exists.

Money—or the lack of it—is the biggest obstacle, Blandford explains. "Most of the current problems of under-nutrition are due to poverty. Food is available but some groups are unable to get it simply because they don't have the necessary income. We find this problem in all countries, not just ones in which average income per head is low."

Creating a better infrastructure for food distribution—chiefly in the form of transport vehicles to move food around the globe—is costly as well. Says Blandford, "When it's too difficult or expensive to move food from surplus to deficit areas, people won't have access to buy food when they need it."

"Political instability, particularly civil war and internal conflicts, is a major source of food insecurity in the developing world, rather than any lack of agricultural potential," Blandford adds, pointing to the example of Zimbabwe. While the African nation was once a leading exporter of grain and other agricultural products, "restrictive government policies on the ownership and operation of land, as well as poor management of the economy as a whole, have changed Zimbabwe into a country in which a large proportion of the population is on the borderline of subsistence, or has emigrated in order to stay alive."

Another issue of potential concern for the world food supply, says Blandford, is the increasing demand for biofuels. "As grain, particularly corn, is diverted to that use, corn prices tend to rise," he explains, "and this has a ripple effect on the prices of other commodities and the price of food."

"While there's no simple fix," Blandford concludes, "the hope is that we can work towards creating better food distribution systems, so that we can reduce the crisis of starvation and malnutrition around the globe."

David Blandford, Ph.D., is professor of agricultural economics and rural sociology in the College of Agricultural Sciences; dblandford@psu.edu.

Last Updated December 03, 2007