Are the poor getting hungrier?

The world is whipping itself into a lather about the jump in world food prices. Just this last weekend the Minister of Agriculture of Egypt was saying that, without assured grain supplies from Russia and Ukraine, he expected a rise of widespread malnutrition.

As long ago as 1974, when grain prices had just quadrupled, all the nations of the world meeting at the World Food Conference in Rome promised that by the end of the century “no child would go to bed hungry”. After a steady increase in aid for agriculture for a number of years the momentum slowed. Likewise, in developing countries, the priority that agriculture was given seemed to fade away. The work of influencing and aiding the peasantry to increase production was so much harder than urban and industrial development that it slipped down the list of priorities. If what had been decided upon then - a “doable” list of goals, according to Henry Kissinger who was the US secretary of state - had been done there would be very little hunger today and poverty would have been severely reduced. Still, that is only a half of it. We don’t measure hunger very well.

Periodically, because of one calamity or another- bad weather, oil price rises, a sharp increase in biofuels as happened in the US a decade ago or, as now, disturbing political events- the price of food rises. But- this is the important point- it is usually only wheat, maize, rice and soya beans whose prices are measured- the food that is traded.

The prices of fish, wild meat, cattle, cassava, yams, potatoes, the many kinds of beans, bananas and other vegetables are not measured and are little dependent on inputs from outside. Fertiliser can be useful. Unfortunately, prices are rising. (But if governments cut down on their military expenditure by 10%, fertiliser can be subsidised. In fact, that is the only new expenditure that needs to be made to preserve the status quo.) Goats need any old pasture. Chickens, pecking up bits and pieces of unused food and locally produced vegetable and grains, lay eggs. People even eat insects and snails (considered a delicacy in Nigeria, as in France). The fact is rice and wheat are usually the preserve of better-off people.

For decades we have assumed lower calories means more hunger. “Poor Economics”, a study by Abhijit Banarjee and Esther Duflo, Nobel Prize winners for Economics, turns much conventional thinking on nutrition on its head. Amartya Sen who also won the Nobel Prize for Economics was dead right when he wrote that it is “a marvellously insightful book”.

“What if the poor are not eating too little food?”, they write, “What if instead they are eating the wrong kinds of food? What if the poor aren’t starving but choosing to spend their money on other priorities?”

They look at India, “one of the great puzzles in the age of food crises”. According to government statistics Indians are eating less. Per capita calorie consumption has declined. Why? Incomes are not declining, quite the reverse. It is not because of rising food prices. Between the early 1980s and 2005 food prices declined relative to the prices of other things. The percentage of people who said they don’t have enough food dropped dramatically from 17% in 1983 to 2% in 2004. In Delhi in real terms food prices have been declining since 2008. We have to look at this problem of hunger more deeply. Diarrhoea is the scourge of poorer peoples. But it has been an easy problem to solve. The simple use of salt mixed with clean water can resuscitate even bad cases. Hence there is less “leaking” of the food people eat and therefore less calorie-rich foods are sufficient.

With the introduction of better tools and better machines- many parts of rural Africa were not widely using the wheel a generation ago much less machines- there has been a decline in heavy physical work. The widespread introduction of wells thanks to better boring techniques has meant that women do not have to walk very far carrying heavy loads of water, usually on their heads. Moreover, this water is purer and water-borne diseases are less. Likewise, the wider use of bicycles and, more recently, motorbikes and the steady spread of cheap bus services have cut down on walking time. Even in the poorest villages in India flour milling is now motorized. Vaccination against many diseases has gone up dramatically, and people are healthier and stronger. In sum, less physical energy is expended, and fewer calories are needed. The two researchers made a survey of 18 countries. They found that in rural areas food was at the most 80% of consumption, often much less. In urban areas at the most 75%. Moreover, as poorer people get a bit more money they don’t spend proportionately more on more food. The poor seem to have many choices. One of them is that if they get a little more money, they switch from basic foods that traditionally have given them the best number of calories to better-tasting, more expensive but less nutritious ones- rice, first and then wheat. They also eat more meat and sugary items, such as unhealthy soft drinks. If we want to help the poor we should encourage them to eat more fruit and vegetables and iodine-fortified salt, less wheat and rice and more coarse grains and root vegetables. Cassava is probably the most nutritious of all foods. It is an easy-to-grow root crop that is drought resistant. But it has widely been considered as a poor man’s crop. But it shouldn’t be. It grows widely in sub-Saharan Africa and new fields can be brought into production quite quickly- a lot of the African countryside is not farmed. From planting to harvest is a mere three months. Grain from Russia, the Ukraine, the EU and the US is not needed, except in the occasional times of severe famines.

The rise in rice and wheat prices in the international marketplace doesn’t tell the whole story. Only softly spoken about is the benign effect of price rises. Supply and demand. As food markets tighten and prices of a few foods rise, the incentive for rural peoples to plant more for the next season’s harvest increases. Faced with the present-day rises, farmers in developing countries will plant more maize, wheat and rice. Next season prices will fall back, as any farmer the world over can tell you. In the interim the kind of easy-to-produce local products can be substituted.

Admittedly, the inhabitants of the urban areas will not experience these kinds of benefits. Politicians, intimidated by the urban vote or the possibilities of urban unrest and agitation, listen to their demands most. Urban dwellers, even poor ones, are much better off than villagers and they push for foreign foods.

Politicians, in a time of crisis, like now, need to resist these voices. They should realise that economics, with its concept of supply and demand, will for a while work in favour of villagers. The terms of trade will shift in the small farmers direction. Quite a number of people will leave the cities and return home where they can make some money from their family’s homestead. The population of the cities need thinning and home villages need more manpower.

Yes, the war in Ukraine will hurt some people, not least the Ukrainian and Russian consumers themselves. Also, it will have a malign effect in high-income countries where grains are all-important. But the ordinary poor in the Third World will not suffer so much. Indeed, they might emerge from this food crisis better off than they were. The move towards imported grains has not been good for them.

A final word about the very poor. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, there are around 800 million people who every year go hungry on most days, and the number has been slowly rising since 2014, long before Covid and the Russian-Ukrainian war. Many of the above remedies can be applied to them, and governments have to push them forward. But much can’t because of a deteriorating climate, drought, flooding and, most significantly, civil war (most of these very poor live in war zones). These numbers are not improving, neither in Asia, nor in Africa, nor in current war zones, like Yemen, Syria and the Horn of Africa. Food aid is necessary. I just