World Hunger, 10 Myths: book review

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

Have you ever heard these arguments about hunger? Or perhaps you’ve used these arguments yourself:

Modern farming techniques, such as mechanization, mono-crops, and genetically modified seeds are the only way to feed a hungry world.

Farmers can’t turn a profit or produce enough food using organic methods.

If we want to end hunger, we have to deal with the population problem.

Climate change is inevitably going to make global hunger increase.

If we just got rid of government regulations, the free market would regulate the production of the right kinds and the right amount of food.

The best way to address global hunger is for wealthy countries to give away food to hungry people in other countries.

We might have hunger issues in our country, but we’re not as bad as other countries.

We have to keep people in other countries impoverished in order to be able to feed our own children inexpensively.

According to the authors of World Hunger: 10 Myths, Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins (Grove/Atlantic Press and Food First Books, 2015), all these statements are myths that do not hold up under careful and systemic scrutiny. Hunger is a distribution problem, rather than a production problem, and though it is connected to population concerns it is not caused by them. This text incorporates recent data and statistics into a work these authors have been periodically updating since 1977 in what they call a “journey…to understand why there is hunger in a world of plenty” (1). Contrary to popular opinion, they find, there is plenty of food in the world to feed even our burgeoning human population. Although more food is produced through industrial models, the nutritional content of that food has steadily declined. And offering discounted food to countries experiencing hunger can undermine local economies, making it impossible for local farmers to sell their produce and causing them to lose their land and livelihoods. In the introduction to the book, the authors unpack the idea of hunger, recognizing that it is not simply a lack of food. They call hunger a universal human emotion, including anguish, grief, humiliation, and fear of scarcity. In short, it is a lack of human dignity: an inability for an individual to care for oneself and one’s family, and to contribute meaningfully to society. Hunger is a sign of manipulative power imbalance, where the powerful wield this surprisingly potent weapon—fear of hunger—over the heads of vulnerable populations.

I appreciated this text’s balanced look at hot-button issues, such as GMOs and genetically-engineered crops, pesticides and artificial fertilizers, over-exaggeration of the impact of climate change on world hunger, and assumptions (on both sides) around free market economies. The text does not lean left or right, but remains focused on unpacking what justice could look like, regardless of the narrative of one political persuasion or another. It does well at communicating data accessibly, asking good questions and explaining answers, and encouraging deep self-reflection on our own assumptions. At the end of the book, the authors connect power struggles around hunger to the idea of freedom. Rather than viewing access to freedom as a finite resource, they emphasize that individuals are more able to experience freedom when everyone is free: when all have enough, no one has to feel afraid to the point of one’s life being on the line, and therefore, none of the rest of us have to fear that someone will do something drastic to try to gain power in an unjust system. By changing our own relationship to hunger, and to food production and consumption, we begin the process of building freedom for all. Moore Lappé and Collins invite the reader to ask, “How can I change myself so that I can contribute to ending hunger?” They then offer a number of suggestions for getting started.

With a robust list of sources in the “Notes” section and a concluding list of “10 Things We Can Do Right Now to Create a World Free of Hunger,” this text provides a practical, thoughtful, and balanced perspective that dispels common myths around the issue of hunger. I recommend this book for use in college or graduate-level classrooms focused on food systems and the environment. It would also serve as an interesting read for individuals who believe any of these myths to be true. Find out for yourself—do you find their counterarguments compelling?

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