Hunger's deeper causes

Originally published in IN CONTEXT #42, Fall 1995, Page 45
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

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Five Myths
About Food and Hunger

What causes hunger in Third World countries? How does growing food for export affect the prospects of rural people? The following is excerpted from a paper by Institute for Food and Development Policy staff.

Myth: There is simply not enough food to go around.

Fact: Growing more food will not end hunger. World production of wheat, corn, rice and other grains is sufficient to give every person on the planet more than enough to stay healthy.

People go hungry when they lack the opportunities necessary to obtain adequate food - such as land, jobs that pay a living wage, or social programs that insure people have access to food.

Myth: There's not enough food because there are too many people.

Fact: The root causes of poverty and hunger are the uprooting of peoples from their land and livelihoods.

The great pre-colonial civilizations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas were all based on food production with staple foods grown on the best lands. Areas that were marginal for agriculture, like rainforests in Latin America or desert edges in Africa, were less populated and not farmed intensively. In no case did pre-colonial civilizations attempt to grow mono-cultures of annual crops in marginal habitats.

All that changed as food producers were displaced from the best lands onto ever more marginal ones. Today the best lands in Africa and the Americas are used to produce products for export - primarily to North America, Europe, and Japan.

Famines occur in Africa not because droughts are more common today, but because food is now being grown in areas where droughts were always common.

Myth: Overpopulation in Third World countries is degrading the environment and provoking massive migration

Fact: Expansion of export agriculture is the root cause of much environmental destruction and migration in the Third World.

Once the growth of export agriculture forces the poor to farm fragile lands, environmental problems are the inevitable result.

On the desert edges in Africa, plowing the soil degrades fragile areas and expands deserts. Throughout Central America many small farmers have been driven from fertile Pacific lowlands up steep mountain slopes, where they try to farm thin, rocky soils that rapidly erode away. Others are driven into rainforests, where soils lose all fertility within two or three seasons after the trees are cut.

Meanwhile those who export from the best land are rapidly destroying their land by abusing pesticides, fertilizers, heavy machinery and large scale mono-cultures. As yields drop and poor countries increase exports to meet debt repayment obligations, export farming expands from the areas with the best soils, again displacing peasants from somewhat marginal lands onto even less fertile areas.

When people cannot make enough to feed themselves and their families, they leave, moving to the slums of cities like Mexico City, Lagos, or Bangkok or to other countries. Both rich and poor nations now host large numbers of economic refugees from neighboring countries, in some cases causing a backlash and violence against new arrivals.

Myth: The key to development for the Third World lies in a renewed emphasis on exports and free trade

Fact: Free trade policies and export agriculture have increased poverty throughout the Third World.

At the end of World War II, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were as destitute as any Third World country is today.

The key policies that helped them recover centered around making the peasantry the engine of economic development. This was done through trade barriers against cheap subsidized imports of agricultural products, combined with agrarian reform. These measures created a peasantry with the purchasing power to support the fledgling domestic industries that later became international powerhouses.

Myth: Agrarian reform is passé; where it's been tried it hasn't worked.

Fact: Not only is agrarian reform an issue of social justice, but redistribution can lead to increases in production at lower cost, as labor-intensive multiple cropping systems produce higher yields with fewer inputs.

Only agrarian reform that gives the poor access to land with regular rainfall or irrigation can make a difference. To succeed, peasants also need credit, education, extension services, and marketing channels.

The Institute for Food and Development Policy is a member-supported think tank. To join, or to order the complete version of 'Myths and Root Causes: Hunger, Population and Development, or other publications, write: 398 60th St., Oakland, CA, 94618, tel. 510/654-4400; fax: 510/654-4551, e-mail:

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Last Updated 20 February 1997.


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