The Hungry Earth


By Dan Gordon '85

Published Aug 24, 2007 5:08 PM

Fighting Hunger: the Politics

"Solutions of policymakers too often focus on production, not distribution," explains UCLA Professor of Geography Judith Carney, whose award-winning 2001 book, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, chronicles the grain's complex history.

Carney points out that the green revolution of the 1970s, which was supported by many well-intentioned scientists, improved yields of the major food grains but did little for hunger because the presumed beneficiaries couldn't afford to purchase the products. She believes that the same issues are informing biotechnology and the movement of transnational agribusiness corporations into new markets. "These technologies do not address the distribution issue — that is, how they will become available to the poor, which would mean pricing the food under market value," Carney says.

According to the World Bank, more than a billion people in developing countries live on $1 a day or less, and most of them suffer from chronic hunger. It's the most vicious of circles: Hunger is a consequence of poverty — and a cause. "We have shown that economic growth is extremely important for hunger reduction," says Kostas Stamoulis, a UC Berkeley graduate who is now in Rome as chief of the FAO's Agricultural Sector in Economics Development Service. "However, you can't expect growth when 35 percent of the people are chronically undernourished, because that's going to make them sicker and less productive."

The most recent FAO report, which Stamoulis coauthored, recommends a two-track approach that includes direct-assistance programs to help the neediest populations break the cycle of poverty. For the long term, the report urges initiatives to enhance productive potential, particularly emphasizing agriculture and rural development, along with ensuring access by the poor to productive assets — physical, human and financial.

Fighting Hunger: a Closer Look

In four Peace Corps stints that took her to some of the world's poorest regions, Theresa Elders M.S.W. '78 saw firsthand the visible effects of childhood malnutrition.

But Elders, a psychiatric social worker who has championed healthy environments in leadership roles with the Arkansas Department of Health and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, was equally troubled by what was not as readily apparent. "Right away you would see what's called kwashiorkor — the distended bellies and the reddish hue of the hair," Elders says. "But the thing that people rarely talk about is how malnutrition affects long-term cognitive functioning.

You would see adults having cognitive difficulties, and it would make you wonder: When children grow to adulthood and can't catch up intellectually, what are we doing?"

Charlotte Neumann, a pediatrician on UCLA's School of Public Health faculty, has conducted seminal studies with collaborators in Kenya, documenting the high proportion of the nation's schoolchildren lacking the nutrients they need for adequate functioning, learning and growth. Ultimately, they showed that adding a small amount of meat to the diet dramatically increased the children's school performance, physical activity, muscle mass and ability to ward off infection.