Human starvation: An irony of the modern world


Dr. Alfred Mak

Hunger and malnutrition have devastating consequences for children and have been linked to low birth weight and birth defects, obesity, mental and physical health problems, and poorer educational outcomes.

- Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund

In the eighteenth century, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, a famous economist of the time, observed that as human population grew exponentially whereas agricultural production only increased at a linear rate, human numbers would inevitably outrun the amount of food available. Based on such, he concluded that the power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race (Ridley, 2010)

History, however, did not turn out as Malthus predicted. Despite accurately describing humanity’s predicament, he underestimated man’s ability to innovate, solve problems and make changes for shrewd adaptations. Indeed, the nineteenth century, facilitated by Enlightenment ideas of freedoms and rights of people, saw remarkable development in both industry and agriculture. As borders began to open up, regions were quick to specialize in the kinds of production suited to their soil, climate and skills. At the same time, improved agricultural technology pushed further farm production, allowing a much bigger supply of food to cater for the rapid growing population in the same period. In more advanced countries, notably in north-west Europe, the resounding success in providing adequate food supply to feed their citizens was particularly noticeable. For example, Sweden was declared free from chronic hunger in the early 20th century (Onion, 2016).

But Malthus’ prophecy about human starvation has not been defeated entirely since his time, as, for different reasons, hunger never completely disappears on earth. Today, while it is true that advances in technology and rapid economic growth have succeeded to wash away the problem of food shortage in most countries, and that many developing countries in Central and East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean that used to suffer from famine also have made huge progress in eradicating extreme hunger in recent years, yet there remains a great number of people being tormented by starvation and undernourishment. According to the United Nations, a total of 795 million people are estimated to be chronically undernourished as of 2014, often as a direct consequence of environmental degradation, drought and loss of biodiversity. Over 90 million children under the age of five are dangerously underweight. One in four of the world’s children suffer stunted growth. In developing countries the proportion can rise to one in three. And in Africa, one person in every four still goes hungry, and 66 million primary school-age children attend classes hungry across the developing world, with 23 million in Africa alone (UNDP 2017).

A kneejerk response to the above perhaps is to ask why this could have happened in a world of plenty. In fact, many countries nowadays have effectively solved their food problem, only to be overtaken by the opposite one – that of obesity. Every day, huge volume of food wastes are discarded and recycled around the world. The following quotes perhaps give some ideas of how the situation has become:

  • In the United Kingdom, a shocking 30-40% of all food is never eaten
  • In the US 40-50% of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten;
  • n Sweden, families with small children throw out about a quarter of the food they buy (The Guardian, Feb., 15, 2012)
  • The per capita food waste by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg/year, as compared with 6-11 kg/year in sub-Saharan Africa and South/South-east Asia (UNFAO, 2011);

At this point, it may be argued that hunger is not due to shortage of food, as globally there is enough of it to go round. On the other hand, it is evident that the hunger situation is at least in part attributed to uneven distribution of global wealth. As Sen (2013) would agree, hunger is both a cause and a symptom of poverty. Hunger is more than just the result of food production and meeting demands. To tackle the problem, it is therefore necessary to find out what causes it. Here, while most people would agree that “poverty” itself is a major cause, pundits point to a host of related factors, commonly including famine, drought, inefficient agriculture practices, unscrupulous or non-productive land use, poor crop yield, lack of democracy, and war. Many past hunger events, in fact, occurred due to a combination of causes instead of a single factor. And bad policies often made the vice worse.

Surely, there have been continuous efforts by individual governments and international NGOs in tackling with the situation. In fact, their past struggles succeeded in reducing the hunger population by half in the past three decades. The success of the Green Revolution, particularly in  Mexico and India, also has given poor countries crops and bigger yields, and has alleviated rural poverty. Despite these successes, the international community has never slacked off in grappling with the residual problems. Recently, participating countries of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiated a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. On 1 January 2016, the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development officially came into force. Among them, Goal 2 – Zero Hunger - calls for joint efforts of member states to end all forms of poverty and hunger of all people, namely:

  • 2.1 by 2030 end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round
  • 2.2 by 2030 end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving by 2025 the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under five years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women, and older persons
  • 2.3 by 2030 double the agricultural productivity and the incomes of small-scale food producers, particularly women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets, and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment
  • 2.4 by 2030 ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters, and that progressively improve land and soil quality
  • 2.5 by 2020 maintain genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at national, regional and international levels, and ensure access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge as internationally agreed
  • 2.a. increase investment, including through enhanced international cooperation, in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and extension services, technology development, and plant and livestock gene banks to enhance agricultural productive capacity in developing countries, in particular in least developed countries
  • 2.b. correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets including by the parallel elimination of all forms of agricultural export subsidies and all export measures with equivalent effect, in accordance with the mandate of the Doha Development Round
  • 2.c. adopt measures to ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets and their derivatives, and facilitate timely access to market information, including on food reserves, in order to help limit extreme food price volatility.
    (UN-DESA/DSD on 1 Dec 2014)

As we understand, problems relating to human hunger are complicated, but solutions can be simple if they are going to be embraced, enforced and solved. Just as we have seen from the above, humanity has won a few battles in the past in its fight against hunger. But to end the war, a sensible and necessary step to maintain sustainable development of the human race may now be for our world leaders to strengthen their political will and commitments to achieve SDG 2 by year 2030.


  • Norberg, J (2017) Progress, Ten reasons to look forward to the Future. London: One World
  • Onion, Rebecca (2017) ‘A post-World War I “hunger Map of Europe,” aimed at the hearts of American kids’, The Vault, Slate 31 July 2014, _vault/01431 /history_of _famine_in _europe_afater_wwi_a_hunger_map_for_america_kids.html (accessed on 10 Sept., 2017)
  • Ridley, Matt (2010) The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. London: Four Estate, 2010, p.6f
  • Sen, Amartya (2013). Speech in United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Conference. Rome 2013.
  • UNDP (Zero Hunger) United Nations Development Programme accessed on 10 Sept., 2017.

About the author

Dr. A. Mak was a senior civil servant and later a NGO director before retirement. He is presently an honorary lecturer/tutor at a few tertiary institutions.