Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Our Socially Divided World: Poverty and Hunger

Hunger is the most visible face of poverty. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 840 million of the world's people are chronically hungry. They are not getting enough food to achieve full physical and mental development and to maintain adequate levels of physical activity.19

The majority of the underfed and underweight are concentrated in the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa—regions that contain 1.3 billion and 700 million people, respectively. Twenty-five years ago, the nutritional status of Asia's population giants, India and China, was similar, but since then China has eliminated much of its hunger, whereas India has made considerably less progress. The principal difference has not been so much in the rate of agricultural production as in the rate of population growth. During this last quarter-century China has accelerated the shift to smaller families. While most of the gains in food production during this period in India were absorbed by population growth, those in China went to raising consumption and upgrading diets.20

Sub-Saharan Africa, the other remaining stronghold of hunger, has been plagued with even faster population growth than India. In the last several decades, its population has grown faster than any other in the world.21

Malnutrition takes its heaviest toll among the young, who are most vulnerable during their period of rapid physical and mental development. In both India and Bangladesh, more than half of all children are malnourished. In Ethiopia, 47 percent of children are undernourished and in Nigeria the figure is 27 percent—and these are Africa's two most populous countries.22

Although it is not surprising that those who are underfed and underweight are concentrated in developing countries, it is perhaps surprising that most of them live in rural communities. More often than not, the undernourished are landless or live on plots of land so small that they are effectively landless. Those who live on the well-watered plains are usually better nourished. It is those who live on marginal land-land that is steeply sloping or semiarid—who are hungry.

The penalties of being underweight begin at birth. A U.N. report estimates that 20 million underweight infants are born each year to mothers who also are malnourished. The study indicates that these children suffer lasting effects in the form of "impaired immune systems, neurological damage, and retarded physical growth."23

Worldwatch Institute's Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil report that if an infant's weight at birth is two thirds or less of normal, the risk of death in infancy is 10 times greater. They cite David Barker of Britain's University of Southampton, who "observes soberly that 60 percent of all newborns in India would be in intensive care had they been born in California." WHO epidemiological data indicate that 54 percent of deaths from the five leading causes of childhood mortality in developing countries have malnutrition as an underlying condition.24

University of Toronto economist Susan Horton estimates productivity losses among the moderately undernourished at 2-6 percent and among the severely undernourished at 2-9 percent. Gardner and Halweil note that if Horton's calculations for five countries in South Asia hold for all developing countries, then "between $64 billion and $128 billion is drained from developing country economies just from productivity losses."25

Eradicating hunger in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be difficult, but it is not impossible. It will, however, require a far greater effort and a shift in priorities. India, for example, opted early on to become a nuclear power. As a result, it now has the dubious distinction of being able to defend with nuclear weapons the largest concentration of hungry people in the world.


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