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Hunger, Obesity, and ‘Summit Fatigue’

Posted Nov 19 2009 10:00pm

by Meredith St John 

The number of people afflicted by hunger worldwide is expected to surpass one billion for the first time this year – topic of conversation at the World Summit on Food Security held in Rome this week. In an effort to emphasize hunger statistics, the media often contrast these numbers with obesity rates. This usually goes something like, “How can one billion people be hungry and one billion people be overweight, and 300 million be obese, at the same time?” 

One salient example is Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein’s article that appeared on the Huffington Post. Employing a visual aid called the “Fat Map,” she highlighted the average caloric distribution across the globe and the “terrible inequities.” Hussein, a UN Messenger of Peace, discussed the concept of “food morality” and pointed out just how much food we waste every year – “another reflection of our embrace of excess.”

To paint obesity as some kind of moral failure is a deeply flawed assessment of the global food security landscape.

 “Each of us can consume more wisely and donate the food we now waste to a food bank or charity,” Hussein suggested. Her naïveté is well intentioned, and on some levels her message rings true ( e.g. new data show that one in seven Americans struggled to get enough to eat in 2008 ). I think we could all offer more assistance to those in need, more often. However, even if local food bank donations were a plausible solution to global hunger (they’re not), experts agree that we need to invest in agricultural technology and reach out to farmers in developing nations so that they can become more self-reliant ( note the use of “more,” and not “completely” ). This would offer a host of benefits for developing nations, including basic protection from famine in the face of commodities market fluctuations, like the global food crisis of 2007-2008 that led to food riots in many places. World leaders have acted on this. A three-year, $20 billion pledge to help farmers in developing nations was made at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy this summer. 

Some would say this World Food Summit accomplished very little. Senior FAO economist, Abdolreza Abbassian, worries about summit fatigue. This was the third World Food Summit in ten years and “we have talked a lot, we have committed a lot, but we haven’t really acted,” he said. Abbassian believes there is one certainty: “there will be [another] food crisis.” To borrow from Princess Hussein’s optimism, I hope our agricultural investments yield a good return - because we do need to strike a better balance on the global scale. 

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