Feeding the World: The Expert’s Burden

In today’s New York Times article, “Experts Worry as Population and Hunger Grow,” there’s some Green Revolution mythology propagated about how the policies “staved off famines affecting millions.” As has been pointed out, though food production did increase, hunger actually increased as well just about everywhere affected by the Green Revolution; the reason the overall numbers showed hunger down was because China, as part of its own revolution including land reform, managed to reduce hunger dramatically. But the overall framing of the article is what bothers me more–the idea that it’s “scientists and development experts” who are responsible for “feeding the world’s growing population.”

There are hints at the real problem, as when reporter Neil MacFarquhar notes that “the conundrum is whether the food can be grown in the developing world where the hungry can actually get it, at prices they can afford.” He also notes legitimate concerns like the effect of climate change, which is worsening droughts in some areas, and the growth of biofuels, which gobble up available farmland. But he quickly returns to the main angle, explaining, “The track record of failing to feed the hungry haunts the effort.” He quotes one official who explains the current problem in terms of a lack of aid money from the West: “Nobody has 20 billion and spare change in their sock drawer.”

As Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé pointed out in Extra! (11-12/08), the problem is extreme inequality and lack of power for poor farmers; the hungry don’t need experts and the G-8 to “feed” them, they need the opportunity to feed themselves, whether that be in the form of more equitable land reform, the ability to adopt their own sustainable agricultural methods, or freedom from the market distortions created by those very G-8 countries and experts. Even the climate change and biofuel concerns are primarily the result of damaging first-world energy policies that remain unaddressed–by those countries as well as by MacFarquhar. But it’s no surprise those root causes go missing in a hunger story whose hook is a meeting of “development experts” and every source but one is either a government or aid official.

About Julie Hollar

Managing Editor of Extra! Magazine
Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.