Hunger is the most awful and profound expression of poverty. It exists in every country. It is something that most people can identify with on some perhaps primordial level. It is innate. The fear of hunger is etched into our DNA, passed down the generations from hungry, scared ancestors. It is in our bones. It is in my Irish bones.
First, the good news. For several decades global hunger has been decreasing. This is mostly thanks to the sweat and ingenuity of the 500 million smallholders who produce 80% of the food consumed in the developing world. It is also thanks to the work of exceptional NGOs, to economic growth and to the innovation of businesses all along the supply chain. It’s thanks, too, to the support of governments and international organisations. And it’s to increased political stability in some places.
But there is very bad news. More recently hunger has started to increase. Again. On World Food Day on Wednesday, 820 million people face chronic hunger. That’s the equivalent of the population of the US and the EU combined. This is daily, frightening, fatiguing, persistent hunger. Day after day, 820 million people will not get enough to eat. Night after night famished adults, mothers, fathers put their children to bed with empty stomachs.
I suspect this shocks noone these days. Just as I suspect the spectre of climate crisis evokes yawns. Yet the two are inextricably linked in a kind of existential tango happening too slowly in real time for us to register.
The increase in global hunger is in part being triggered by the climate emergency. There have been more floods, more droughts, and more frequent, fiercer storms. Small farmers are being hit first and hardest as once-in-a-century extreme weather events become almost routine and threaten food production.
At the same time food production is a major cause of climate change. Whether it be the methane gas production of cows or the tearing down of forests to grow crops, agriculture contributes about a quarter of greenhouse emissions.
So, humanity faces a profound challenge. How do we feed the world without destroying it?
In the long run, new food-producing technologies may come to our rescue. But from next year there will only be 10 years left to achieve the sustainable development goals established by UN member states. If these goals are to be more than bureaucratic niceties and political platitudes, they must immediately spark powerful combined action to stop the goal of zero hunger going into reverse.
The German government aims to catalyse the global response. Next June it will host an international event to push for action to boost agriculture and tackle hunger in low-income countries, while staying within the environmental boundaries of what our planet can cope with. More power to them.
Those who attend will need to confront the challenge of underperforming agricultural development and the weaknesses of the international system. That means getting hard cash to the smallholder farmers who are too often bypassed by funding that goes either to governments or big business. It means leveraging government and private investment all along the supply chain from farm to table. It means proper comparable evaluation and learning from what works and what doesn’t work. And it means streamlining, coordination and cutting out waste.
The Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme, which we successfully fought for alongside President Obama, will be critical. It has a decade of experience in encouraging increased impact from the international system in exactly the way we need. In the face of the dual challenges of climate change and hunger it is perhaps more relevant today than at its inception.
Whatever happens with Brexit, the German gathering will be an opportunity for us to come together to tackle one of the great 21st-century challenges. It’s a century that has stumbled to begin. It is finally taking shape, but it is still a plastic thing. It will see mind-boggling technologies emerge and profound cultural shifts. But what’s the point if we can’t beat humanity’s oldest foe, hunger? Surely it is a modest thing to suggest that next year would be an excellent time to start doing just that?