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Hunger management

Experts predict that there will be ten billion of us by 2100. Feeding the world could be the politic

How will we eat in the future? By 2100, the world's population is projected to reach ten billion. The highest levels of consumption will be in Europe and North America, most people will live in Asia and the highest population growth rates in Africa - where the population could triple over the next 90 years. If tomorrow augurs ill, today is already pretty dire. The global recession has lowered incomes, raised food prices and pushed the number of hungry people to one billion.

We're poorly set to cater for tomorrow. The policies designed to keep prices low have been responsible for greater instability. Countries were meant to be able to ride out bad weather and poor harvests through trade liberalisation. Grain stores were sold off because, in the event of emergency, the market would provide. But it didn't. Trade and financial networks have instead become excellent conduits for international shocks. Last year, fires in Russian wheat fields led to riots in Mozambican cities. Commodity speculation has made prices more volatile, and climate change has driven up prices too. Poor weather helped drive bread prices higher this year, fanning the flames of the Arab spring and deepening the woes of China's thousands of protesting migrant workers.

If these are the dividends of the 21st-century food market, then it is unsurprising that the old-fashioned idea that a country might produce a little more of its own food is enjoying rising popularity. There is, however, a war over how to do that. The Oxford economist Paul Collier recently berated the "romantics" who were nostalgic for peasant agriculture. He called for big agriculture, genetically modified crops and for the EU and US to stop domestic subsidies. He is right on the last point: biofuel subsidies drive up food prices, siphoning grain from the poorest into the petrol tanks of the richest. On other points, Collier's facts seem shakier. In its 2008 World Development Report, the World Bank found that, on the contrary, investment in smallholder agriculture was among the most efficient and effective ways of bringing people out of poverty and hunger. The question is what sort of investment to bring to small farmers.

Share and care alike

Consider Malawi - a battlefield for the future of farming. A landlocked country a little smaller but with a third more people living in it than Greece, it features consistently among the world's poorest places. The latest figures show nine out of ten people living on the equivalent of less than $2 a day. More than 70 per cent of Malawians live in the rural areas, where nearly every farmer grows maize but not enough people can afford to eat it - about 40 per cent of Malawi is poor and "food-insecure".

Like elsewhere in Africa, the soil in Malawi isn't as rich as the rest of the world's. Farming everywhere depletes the soil of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and poor farmers in Africa in general use very little fertiliser. These missing molecules have led the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, supported by various political leaders, to call for a green revolution in Africa directed at small farmers.
This is something of a reversal of Collier's conventional wisdom, which insists that the best way for Malawi to become food-secure is to have large estates exporting things in which the country has a comparative advantage - mainly tobacco - and buy grain on the international market. Today, large-estate tobacco farming is in decline, which means there is less foreign exchange with which to import food.

Being landlocked, Malawi also faces higher prices for grain. According to one estimate, the marginal cost of importing a tonne of food-aid maize is £250, £125 a tonne to import it commercially and only £30 to source it domestically using fertilisers. At a time when food and fertiliser prices are predicted to rise, Malawi is sensible to consider how vulnerable to the caprices of international markets it wants to be.

This partly explains why, in the late 1990s, the Malawian government decided to spend the greater part of the department of agriculture's budget on subsidising fertiliser. The president, Bingu wa Mutharika, expanded the programme over 2005-2006, boosting production by between 300,000 and 400,000 tonnes, or up to 15 per cent. The government reports that maize production has remained surplus to national requirements ever since. A success, then? For those who were able to receive vouchers and cash them in, undoubtedly, but evaluations of the programme have remained curiously silent about its impact on hunger. Having enough food in the country doesn't necessarily mean that all the people get to eat.

There are 50 million food-insecure people in the US, for instance, but few would argue that the US wants for calories. There is enough food today to feed every human being. That a billion people, 60 per cent of them women or girls, go hungry amid sufficiency is a symptom of an ongoing failure in the global food system. Hunger is not a sign of a shortage of food - it is a symptom of poverty. For the most vulnerable, that poverty can scar for life. Chronic hunger causes children to be stunted. The number of children malnourished this way has remained stubbornly high since the fertiliser subsidies began in Malawi.

Part of the problem is that more crops in the fields can take women out of the home. Gender matters when it comes to farming. In Malawi, 90 per cent of women work part-time, and women are paid over 30 per cent less than men. Women are also burdened with care work, especially in a country afflicted by HIV/Aids. Even where they own land and have access to the same resources as men, women find themselves torn between the demands of childcare and myriad household and farming chores.

These problems need to be addressed not through soil chemistry, but through social change. In northern Malawi, Canadian researchers have worked with local clinicians, educators and about 8,000 farmers since 2000 on the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) project. As a result of participating in these groups, women and men report more resource sharing, and men help more with childcare and the farming chores associated with women. This, in turn, has led to markedly improved child nutrition.

These sorts of interventions involve investment in support services. The fertiliser programme has, however, sucked resources away from the department of agriculture. Research in Latin America and South East Asia suggests that it's smarter for government to subsidise public goods such as agricultural research and extension services than to direct money at private inputs like fertiliser. Not least, this is because the private inputs can be captured by those with land and political clout.

Luckily, there are alternatives. The SFHC project has been researching ways to build soil ecology in more sustainable ways. A range of experiments has been rolled out, based on a farmer-researcher model; trials include planting different legume crops such as soybeans, mucuna (a kind of inedible bean), pigeon peas and groundnuts, together with maize. By sowing pigeon peas and groundnuts next to each other and incorporating the crop residue back into the soil, farmers have been able to improve maize yields, outperforming the fertiliser programme by roughly 20 per cent.

Esnai Ngwira is a 57-year-old farmer in Ekwendeni, northern Malawi, and one of the programme's star innovators. "Where I incorporated residue last year, people were asking me, 'Have you already applied fertiliser?' So I think this is a better long-term solution," she said. Farmers like the technique not only because it provides more maize, but because it's a source of protein, helps control erosion, can provide food for goats and diversifies crop risk. Intercropping also leaves less weeding to do.

Harvest for the world

These projects succeed, in part, because they use local agricultural knowledge. Rather than treating farmers as passive recipients of technology and science, agro-ecological programmes build on farmers' innate scientific understanding of their environment.

They still have limitations, however. The subsidy has done nothing for a hard core of people - 15 per cent of Malawians remain ultra-poor, unable to buy enough to eat. These are mostly the landless, or those who have poor-quality land and who have to sell their labour at harvest time, when they need it most. They remain untouched by the Malawian miracle because they don't have land rights, and land redistribution is off the policy agenda.

The future doesn't look very promising for Malawi. Concerned about the financial sustainability of the programme, the government is about to embark on a "greenbelt" project, in which thousands of acres will be irrigated to induce foreign investors to begin large-scale cultivation of sugar cane and other export crops. The foreign exchange brought in by this programme, it is hoped, will bankroll spending on fertiliser. Thousands of smallholders are scheduled to be displaced to pay for the fertiliser habit. Yet policymakers have little to offer beyond their commitment to deeper international trade and keeping their fingers crossed.

The tragedy is that there is ample evidence about what works. Yet policymakers insist that an end to hunger is compatible with global markets in food, pretend that action on climate change can be postponed and think that the persistence of malnutrition in women and girls is a quirk of fate. For as long as the dogma of financial liberalisation trumps the ideas of those whom they purport to feed, expect the body count in the war on hunger to rise.

Raj Patel is the author of "The Value of Nothing" (Portobello Books, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood