Global hunger is shrinking. Yet each winter operators of food banks in rich countries like the United States and Britain speak movingly of the plight of those who must choose between heating and eating. The desperation seen by Feeding America and the British Trussell Trust is real enough, but this is not a massive economic failure. The weakness is predominantly social.
When people do not have enough to eat, there are three possible causes: an inadequate food production system, a bad political choice or poor personal arrangements. Through most of history, the first problem was the most important cause of hunger. However, as the economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, food shortages can no longer be acts of nature.
The reason for Sen’s judgment is that nature has been tamed. More than enough food is already produced globally to feed all the people, and the technology of food transport and storage is sufficiently advanced to get the food to those who need it most. When that does not happen, there must be a human problem. Within a country, a shortage of food comes down to a failure of government to serve the governed. Internationally, it is a failure of the strong countries to help the weak.
The proportion of the world’s population which the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations considers malnourished has declined from 19 percent to 12 percent in the last two decades. That is still much too high, and clearly shows a malign neglect by political and social leaders in many poor countries.
It is harder to say that developed economies fail the basic test of feeding their people. True, there is worrying evidence. According to the latest U.S. government survey of household food security, 5.7 percent of American families said they had “very low food security.” Food banks are becoming more prevalent in the UK.