j j

Human Rights / Global Social Justice Portal

Beyond Scarcity: The Human Right to Food
by Joel Federman

The following is an excerpt from
The Politics of Universal Compassion
by Joel Federman

"Some 842 million people, or roughly one in eight, suffered from chronic hunger in 2011-13, not getting enough food to lead active and healthy lives...."

The death of millions of children from hunger each year is a slow-motion tsunami that receives little media attention. Relatively few people rush to provide relief to this problem, in large part due to the myth of scarcity.

Scarcity is a belief that is so widely held that it is not even thought of as a belief but rather simply as an expression of the way things are. The belief in scarcity is contrary to a truly universal compassion in that to believe in scarcity is to believe that for one person or one group to have their needs met and desires fulfilled, others must necessarily do without having their needs met and desires fulfilled. To believe in scarcity is therefore to disbelieve in the realization of the full range of human rights, includivng universal human economic, social, and political rights.

U2, "One Love"

The problem of scarcity can be understood in two ways. In the broadest sense, scarcity concerns the relative access by everyone to every good (economic, social, political, spiritual, interpersonal) in the world. In this sense, scarcity means that the goods of the world, whatever they may be, are ultimately limited in relation to the number of people in society, and that therefore for some to receive or achieve those goods others must be denied them. In other words, life is a "zero sum game."

In a narrower sense, scarcity concerns the satisfaction of the most basic human needs and involves the assumption that there are insufficient resources in the world to provide for the basic needs of everyone. It is scarcity in this latter sense that is of most concern, because it is the perception of a struggle for basic survival that most deeply animates the scarcity concept. In particular, the survival issue is most pointed when it comes to the relative availability of food, and that is the subject I will address here, as a way of beginning to debunk the scarcity concept.

The first task of confronting the belief in scarcity is to make it clear that it is a political norm, not an existential condition. In other words, it is important to recognize that scarcity is a belief, not an unchangeable "reality." For example, it is a common assumption that there is not enough food produced globally to feed the entire world population. In addition, it is assumed that, should foodstuffs be distributed to the poorest of the poor, this would inevitably eventuate in a population increase that would, again inevitably, create a need for food that would be greater than the available supply of food. This latter assumption has been called the "Malthusian" dilemma, after the economist Thomas Malthus, who first put forward the argument in 1798. (Malthus, 1960: passim) Malthus argued that giving more money to the poor would not ameliorate the problem of hunger. Instead, given scarcity of food resources, such a policy would only serve to drive the price of food higher, and thus continue to keep it out of the hands of the poor: "The transfer of three additional shillings a day to each labourer would not increase the quantity of meat in the country. There is not at present enough for all to have a moderate share. What then would be the consequence?...When an article is scarce, and cannot be distributed to all, he that can show the most valid patent, that is, he that offers the most money, becomes the possessor." Even an increase in the production of food, he wrote, would not lead to the alleviation of hunger, since "the spur that (such) riches would give to population would more than counterbalance it; and the increased produce would be to be divided among a more than proportionately increased number of people." (Malthus, 1960: 356)

Malthus' argument is based on two assumptions, both of which are incorrect, at least as applied at the turn of the 21st century. The first assumption, regarding the relative availability of foodstuffs in the world at present, can be dismissed rather directly. As of this writing, there are approximately 5.9 billion people living in the world. According to the Institute for Food and Development Policy, current global grain production as of 1992 was sufficient for all people in world to consume 3,500 calories per day. (Lappe, 1998: 8) Since an average human being suffices with 2,450 calories, ipso facto, there are sufficient food resources to nourish every person in the world, and there is no scarcity of food resources.

Global food production as of 1995 provides enough food resources for each human being to consume have 4.3 pounds of total food per day, including 2.5 pounds of beans and nuts, 1.0 pounds of fruit and vegetables, and slightly less than one pound of meat, milk, and eggs. (Lappe, 1998: 8) As these data show, the presence of hunger, malnutrition and starvation in the world, while widespread, is not caused by insufficient global production of foodstuffs but rather the maldistribution of those foodstuffs. Therefore, scarcity as regards foodstuffs does not exist. Scarcity is thus a political problem, and not a material or economic one. It is a problem concerning the distribution of food, not its production.

A compelling argument that undermines another assumption of the scarcity worldview at a broader level, namely the Malthusian argument that the world's population inevitably grows to the point where it outstrips the ability of the food production system to maintain that population, was made more than twenty years ago by the economist Barry Commoner (1974). Commoner's argument was set forth in an article the title of which makes its basic point: Why Poverty Causes Overpopulation, and Not the Other Way Around. In that article, Commoner argues that standard of living has a direct effect on population growth. He points to correlations between GNP per capita and birthrates. The poorest countries (with GNP per capita less than $500 per year) have the highest birthrates, 40-50 per 1,000 people per year, while countries with higher GNP have decreasing birthrates, reaching about 20 per 1,000 at $750-1,000 GNP per capita. Most of the countries in North America and Europe have about the same low birthrates (these are 1969-70 figures): 15-18 per 1,000, yet their GNP's per capita vary widely. Commoner concludes that "in order to bring the birthrates of the poor countries down to the low levels characteristic of the rich ones, the poor countries do not need to become as affluent...as the U.S. Achieving a per capita birthrate only, let us say, one-fifth of that of the U.S....these countries could...reach birthrates almost as low as that of the European and North American countries." (Commoner, 1974: 5)

A more recent analysis of updated wealth and population statistics by John Vandermeer re-confirms Commoners conclusions: "(A)s development proceeds, first death rates fall (due to higher standards of living and better medical care) and then birth rates fall (due to lowered desire for having children)....That this transition is related to general economic indicators is hardly debatable....(T)here is a clear relationship between birth rate and gross national product." (Vandermeer, 1996:358-59)

From these data, it can be reasonably argued that raising the per capita income of any country--or, for that matter, the world as a whole--above a minimum level such as Commoner suggests would lower the relevant birthrate to the level of that in the advanced industrial countries. Therefore, it can be concluded that by alleviating poverty we can alleviate overpopulation, thus short-circuiting the Malthusian logic that providing resources to the poor inevitably leads to a growth in population that eventuates future shortages in food.

Since the Malthusian scarcity equation is thus disproved, and there would be no increase in future suffering caused by ending hunger today, there is no excuse for the suffering of millions around the world currently facing starvation and malnutrition. Ending hunger on a planetary scale-- a basic goal for those who believe in universal compassion-- is therefore a realistic possibility.



Back to Top

In This Column
In the News
Human Rights and Global Social Justice Links / Resources

globa justice not war demonstration at white house
AP Photo Source: Huffington Post

In The News

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Help Change the Rules That Create Global Poverty and Inequality

Source: therules.org

"Food Prices 'Will Double by 2030', Oxfam Warns," BBC News, May 30, 2011.

"The Food Crisis is Not About a Shortage of Food," by Jim Goodman, Common Dreams, September 17, 2010.

"UN: World Hunger Down, But Still 'Unacceptable'," CNN.com, September 14, 2010.

"Social Status Has Measurable Effect on Health," by Rick Wilson, Common Dreams, November 30, 2009.

"Hunger in U.S. at a 14-year high," MSNBC, November 16, 2009.

"Poor nutrition 'stunting growth,'" BBC News, November 11, 2009.

World Food Day, October 16, 2009.

"World Hunger Hits One Billion," BBC News, June 20.2009.

"S Asia Hunger 'at 40 Year High,'" BBC News, June 2, 2009.

"The City That Ended Hunger," by Frances Moore Lappe, Yes! Magazine, Spring 2009.

"Developing World Too Big to Fail," by Kevin Gallagher, Common Dreams, March 5, 2009.

"Year of the hungry: 1,000,000,000 afflicted
," by Geoffrey Lean, The Independent, December 29, 2008.

"Hunger Among U.S. Children Skyrockets in 2007," CNN.com, November 18, 2008.

"Bill Clinton: "We Blew It" on Global Food," CBS News.com, October 23, 2008.

"Global Priorities: Feeding Markets, Starving the Hungry," by Devinder Sharma, Common Dreams, September 23, 2008.

"Escaping the Poverty Trap," by Mercedes Sayagues, Common Dreams, August 15, 2008.

"UN food crisis summit delegates work on compromise," by Marta Falconi, Associated Press, June 4, 2008.

"Food Summit 'Follow Through' Urged," by Haider Rizvi, OneWorld.net, June 4, 2008.

"Food Is Gold, and Investors Pour Billions Into Farming," by Diana B. Henriques, New York Times, June 4, 2008.

"Analysis: The Global Food Crisis," Aljazeera.net, June 3, 2008.

"United Nations Summit in Rome Next Week to Address the Global Food Crisis," by Antony Faiola, Washington Post, May 29, 2008.

"Global Hot Spots of Hunger Set to Explode," by Thalif Deen, Common Dreams, April 15, 2008.

"Merkel Says She Will Not Attend Opening of Beijing Olympics," Common Dreams, / The Guardian/UK, March 29, 2008.

"World Food Program Issues 'Emergency Appeal' for Funds," Common Dreams / Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2008.

"Feed the World? We are Fighting a Losing Battle, UN Admits," by Julian Borger,Common Dreams, February 27, 2008.

"Millions Stand Against Poverty in 24-Hour Global Rally," by Haider Rizvi, Common Dreams, October 19, 2007.

"Resistance, Not Repression, is the Real Story from Burma," by Cynthia Boaz, Truthout, October 9, 2007. (For much more on Burma, see the topia.net homepage blog)

"G8: Too Much Talk, Too Few Results," by Julio Godoy, Common Dreams, June 9, 2007.

"No G8" Protester Photo--written on forhead
Photo Source: Reuters/Common Dreams

"Geldof and Bono blast G8 for betraying Africa," by David Blair, Telegragh.co.uk, June 9, 2007.

"The World Social Forum at the Crossroads," by Walden Bello, CommonDreams.org, May 5, 2007.

"WTO Protesters to Get $1 Million Settlement," MSNBC, April
3, 2007.

World Social Forum Opens in Nairobi, Kenya

More than 80,000 people from around the world gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, from January 20 to 25, 2007, for the the 2007 World Social Forum. The Forum brings peace, justice and democracy activists, social movements, networks, and coalitions from around the world together for panels, workshops, symposia, processions, film nights, and "five days of cultural resistance and celebration."

"Hopeful Signs for Global Justice," by Marc Engler, Alternet, December 28, 2006.

"The Global Development Agenda in 2007," by Simon Maxwell, opendemocracy.net, December 21, 2006.

"Please Don't Feed the People," by William Saletan, Washington Post, September 3, 2006.

"A Right to Food?" by Frances Moore Lappé, Common Dreams, August 26, 2006.

"Celebrities, Activists Rally for Darfur in D.C.," MSNBC, April 30, 2006.

"China, Iran, Saudi, US Main Executioners: Amnesty," by Reuters, Common Dreams News Center, April 20, 2006.

"A New Path on Latin Poverty," by Marcela Sanchez, Washington Post, February 18, 2006.

"Visions of the Left Emerge in Venezuela," by Jorge Rueda (Associated Press), The Mercury News, January 28, 2006.

"Davos 2006: Making CARING About Poverty...History," by Van Jones, HuffingtonPost.com, January 28, 2006.

"Partying at Davos," by Jeff Faux, Common Dreams, January 23, 2006.

"Activists Seek End to Poverty, Iraq War," by Jorge Rueda (Associated Press), Washington Post, January 25, 2006.

"Venezuela Hosting World Social Forum," by Christopher Toothaker (AP), San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 2006.

"Famine Threatens 11 Million in Horn of Africa," MSNBC, January 7, 2006.

"World Summit on UN's Future Heads for Chaos," by Ewan MacAskill, Common Dreams, September 10, 2005.
"US Wants Change in UN Agreement," by Colum Lynch, Washington Post, August 25, 2005.

"How the G8 Lied to the World on Aid," by Marc Curtis, Common Dreams News Center, August 23, 2005.

Human Rights / Global Social Justice Links

Share The World's Resources
Share The World's Resources (STWR) is an nongovernmental organization (NGO) campaigning for global economic and social justice. STWR Global Focus presents information about why the world economy needs reforming and how a system based on the principle of sharing can prevent 50,000 people dying from poverty every day. The latest news, analysis and videos on these issues can be found on the organization's website.

Kiva: Loans That Change Lives

As profiled recently in the New York Times and PBS's Frontline World, Kiva is an organization that lets you connect with, and loan money to, unique small businesses in the developing world. By choosing a business on Kiva.org, you can "sponsor a business" and help the world's working poor make great strides towards economic independence.

The Grameen Foundation
Awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, the Grameen Foundation's mission is to empower the world's poorest people to lift themselves out of poverty with dignity through access to financial services and to information. With tiny loans, financial services and technology, they help the poor, mostly women, start self-sustaining businesses to escape poverty.

50 Years Is Enough: U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice
50 Years Is Enough: U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice is a coalition of over 200 U.S. grassroots, women's, solidarity, faith-based, policy, social- and economic-justice, youth, labor and development organizations dedicated to the profound transformation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).


OneWorld.Net is a website that brings together the latest news from over 1,600 organizations promoting human rights awareness and fighting poverty. OneWorld.Net has a global database of links to 1500 organizations--sorted by region and issue focus.

This site's sole purpose is to try to save lives by helping stop the genocide in Darfur. It empowers you to take smart, strategic actions to compel those in power to act through international petitions or local events. It provides access to the best, most relevant and most up-to-date information available. www.savedarfur.org is a similar website.

Food First
The Institute for Food and Development Policy--better known as Food First--is a research and education-for-action center. Its work highlights root causes and value-based solutions to hunger and poverty around the world, with a commitment to establishing food as a fundamental human right.

Amnesty Intermational
Amnesty International (AI) is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights. In pursuit of this vision, AI’s mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination.

Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world by standing with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice.
investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. HRW challenges governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law.

Global Exchange
Global Exchange is an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting political, social and environmental justice globally.

Your Global Rich List Position
This website provides a calculator that allows you to determine your annual income relative to the rest of the world. By entering your annual income, and clicking on the calculator, it gives you the following read-out, with specific dollar figures where the xxx's are: "You are in the top xx% richest people in the world. There are x,xxx,xxx,xxx people poorer than you. How do you feel about that? A bit richer we hope. Please consider donating just a small amount to help some of the poorest people in the world. Many of their lives could be improved dramatically or even saved if you donate just one hour's salary (approx $xx.xx)"

2005 United Nations World Summit
On September 14-16, 2005, the UN World Summit brought together more than 170 Heads of State and Government: the largest gathering of world leaders in history. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take bold decisions in the areas of development, security, human rights and reform of the United Nations. More on the UN Millennium Goals here.