Opinion piece as appeared in the New Zealand Herald on August 15, 2013. By Barry Coates, Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand.
Wherever we turn these days we are bombarded by images of food. Constant adverts, junk food on every corner, marketing to kids, cooking shows and celebrity chefs. We may feel like we have more choice but it’s not making us healthier. We are experiencing a growing problem of obesity and related disease. Last week there were alarm bells over high sugar levels in drinks from an unexpected source - Coca Cola.
But not everyone has to worry about eating too much food. The reality for one seventh of the world’s people is hunger. People like Bhikhni Devi from Bihar, India. Tragically Bhikhni’s son died a few years ago, along with 13 others in the village, because they were so desperate for food that they dug up a dead goat and ate its poisonous meat.
“We were so unfortunate to be performing the last rites of our son in this old age. Instead he should be performing our last rites”, said Bhikhni with tears in her eyes. “To starve and die is not our birthright, all we want is to eat and live.”
Hunger like this exists on a massive scale. There are as many hungry people as the total population of the US, Europe and the rest of the rich world. Going to bed hungry is a silent, avoidable, everyday tragedy.
Around 1.4 billion people struggle to survive on $2.25 day – the international extreme poverty line. There’s something deeply wrong with our food system when over a billion people get unhealthy from eating too much food and almost as many suffer from not enough.
Next month there are going to be a lot of people in New Zealand who switch from eating too much to eating too little. We are voluntarily going to live on just $2.25 worth of food a day for five days.
This initiative, Live Below the Line, is a way to build empathy and to experience firsthand what it feels like to be hungry. We will have to live on a miniscule budget. But with the sympathy and generosity of our friends, neighbours and work colleagues, we will also get the chance to raise vital funds to end the injustice of hunger.
The funds that are raised through Live below the Line will help groups like Oxfam provide food and water to keep people alive, but even more importantly, we can help the poorest people escape the poverty trap. People need more than food for today. Small farmers, especially women, need access to land and water, seeds and tools, and transport to get their produce to markets. This is the key for providing affordable and nutritious food at the local level.
But there’s a deeper issue here. No-one in our world needs to starve. Hunger is not inevitable. People don’t go hungry because there isn’t enough food to eat; people go hungry because of the unfair way the global food system works. We can put an end to hunger. We just need the will to do so.
There are about 7 billion of us in the world who consume food, and around 1.5 billion who produce it, the vast majority of them small farmers in poor countries. In the middle of the supply chain are around 500 giant agribusinesses that control seed patents, the supply of fertilisers and pesticides, trade in food commodities, and food brands. Food is big business.
Huge tracts of land in developing countries are being bought in ‘land grabs’, pushing local people off their land. Hungry people, including low paid farm workers, are forced to watch as food is shipped overseas, or used as subsidised biofuels.
Adding to the injustice of our food system is the growing impact of climate change. The poorest people in the world didn’t cause climate change, but they are on the frontline of its impacts. Faced by drought, storms and floods, farmers around the world are no longer able to predict the weather patterns. And they have no savings or social safety nets. Many are just one failed harvest away from complete devastation.
Food prices have been rising. Poor households, which spend up to two-thirds of their income on food, are worst affected. If the price of flour or rice rises for us, it adds to our shopping bill. But if you’re living off just $2.25 a day, it’s a catastrophe. You go hungry.
But we can change the food system. Consumers have a powerful voice in demanding a fair deal. When Oxfam launched a report highlighting the practices of the major brands around the world, few people thought it would make much difference. But within weeks, the biggest chocolate brands, Mars, Nestlé and Mondelez (owner of Cadburys) signed agreements to support women cocoa farmers. And in New Zealand, Dole dropped its misleading ‘Ethical Choice’ label and has promised to provide rights for banana workers in the Philippines.
There’s a lot we can do. Buy fair trade. Campaign for change. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hopefully some of us will be able to help charities with donations. You can also sign up to Live Below the Line. I am doing it again this year. It is one way that we can start to build a better food system, a fair and sustainable system that works for the benefit of the many, not just the few.