Thanks to Sustainable Farming, Global Hunger Is on the Decline

A new U.N. report shows that a majority of countries have met their Millennial Development Goal to cut malnutrition rates in half.

(Photo: FAOKnowledge/Twitter)

May 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

There were more than 1 billion hungry people around the globe in 1990—nearly 20 percent of the global population.

Despite there being nearly 2 billion more people living on planet Earth today, that number has dropped significantly over the past 25 years, according to a new report from the United Nations. Today 200 million fewer people are routinely malnourished than were in 1990. While problems persist—twice as many African countries (24) are grappling with food crises today compared with 1990—the report shows that the ambitious Millennial Development Goals for hunger set in 2000 were achieved by many countries. More than half—72 of 129—were able to hit the target of reducing malnourishment by 50 percent by this year, “with developing regions as a whole missing the target by a small margin.”

The successes weren’t the result of industrial agriculture, trade deals, or newfangled farming technologies. Rather, in a world where 70 percent of food is grown on smallholder farms, success has come from both protecting and empowering such growers—people who, in many instances, are the first to feel the effects of political unrest, climate-related disasters, poverty, and other issues that can lead to hunger.

These small farms have been able to better provide a steady supply of nutritious food—and income—“through labour and land productivity increases,” according to the report, which was published by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Programme. As previous publications from the FAO have suggested, much of that focus on productivity increases has centered on sustainable farming practices. Additionally, direct financial support—including cash payments to families—has played a key role in helping countries meet the goals.

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So less sending grain to Africa than supporting and improving the way that it’s grown there. “Trade, in itself, is neither a threat nor a panacea when it comes to food security,” according to the report.

“If we truly wish to create a world free from poverty and hunger, then we must make it a priority to invest in the rural areas of developing countries where most of the world's poorest and hungriest people live," Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said in a press release.

In the United States, the debate over small farms, local food, and sustainable agriculture is seen as a bourgeois issue. Organic food is a luxury only afforded by the well-fed—not the necessary subsistence to keep you from going hungry. But the global successes this report illustrates show that the conversation is much larger—and should look beyond, say, the farm-to-table movement.

The U.N. report argues that “public policies should provide incentives for the adoption of sustainable agricultural intensification practices and techniques—sustainable land management, soil conservation, improved water management, diversified agricultural systems and agroforestry—in order to produce more outputs from the same area of land while reducing negative environmental impacts.”

So, Why Should You Care? Even with 200 million fewer malnourished people globally, hunger remains a problem in the United States—nearly 49 million Americans have a difficult time putting food on the table. While the domestic crisis may not be on a famine-like scale, there's plenty of room to improve at home—but our federal ag policies look nothing like the solutions that are proving to work for the rest of the world.