Is hunger the result of insufficient food?

16 September 2016, 12:00 am Written by  Josantony Joseph



As the world struggles to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG2) is achieved by 2030, the question is often raised whether this is a realistic and achievable goal in the first place. After all, the world population continues to rise and so it would seem that the number of hungry people also rises in line.  According to the old Malthusian theory, demand would always outstrip supply which indicates that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are unachievable.

And yet, statistics of the world food supply offer a strange scenario. The total cereal stocks estimated by the UN for the end of 2016 is 642 billion kilos[1]; the current population of the world is approximately 6 billion. By a simple calculation that comes to 107 kilos of cereals per person per year. Therefore, there is an availability of 335 kilos of cereals per family per year or approximately 1 kilo of cereal per family per day.   If one adds other foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy products, lentils, meats, fish, etc, the figure we get is a total of 9.77 kilos per family of 5 per day[2].

In fact, Malthus has been conclusively proven wrong as the rate of food production has increased faster than the rate of population growth for the past two decades, so that today the world produces 17% more food per person than 30 years ago[3].

In contrast to Malthus’ theory, Amartya Sen has also shown that even in the height of famines, countries affected by famine continued to export food. Hence, hunger is not the result of a lack of food resources, but a consequence of a lack of access to what is really available. In turn, a lack of access is primarily due to a lack of power, i.e. people don’t get enough food because they don’t have the ‘power’ (whether in the form of money or other kinds of power) to access the available food.

If a lack of power is the true diagnosis of the cause of hunger and malnutrition, then focussing on increasing the food supply to the hungry or malnourished will not really help us achieve the SDG 2 by 2030.  Even the attempt to officially declare food as a basic human right will help only if countries legislate on such a basic right. This is because signing and ratifying any human right in an international Covenant/Convention /Resolution by countries does NOT automatically ensure that such a right is justiciable within a country. An exceptional case is Nepal, where by an Act of 1990, any international human rights document signed and ratified would automatically be enforceable within the country and thus supersedes any domestic law. Therefore in Nepal such a right becomes justiciable.  In most other countries this is not the case. Hence, neither hungry people nor their advocates can hold their respective governments legally responsible if they are deprived of their right to food.

For this reason, the only way to ensure that hungry or malnourished people are able to access the food that is available, is when there is a change in power equations between the dispossessed and the powerful.  It would seem then that most civil society organisations (including INGOs) rather treat the symptom than the underlying cause of hunger. Hunger after all is not because of a lack of food resources in our world, but because of a lack of power on the part of the hungry.


Josantony Joseph is the current Advisor to the Commissioner in Maharashtra appointed by the Supreme Court of India on Food Security. He was instrumental in setting up the National Centre for Advocacy Studies in India. Further, he has many articles and publications to his credit and these include books on food security issues, teaching ethics to social work students and PCPNDT act in India. Mr. Joseph is the lead-facilitator of the CSA comprehensive course on Advocacy for Food and Nutrition Security.

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