News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

March 18, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Food for thought

While food is wasted, hunger, famine continue to exist around the world

The finest hours in grocery shopping arrive after 10 p.m.

Supermarkets are fully aglow yet almost vacant, like a “Twilight Zone” episode. You and your cart can roam the aisles without constantly saying, “Excuse me.” Most importantly, you’re done eating for the day and make smarter buys. The idea of experimenting with a box of trendy high-fiber buckwheat doughnuts — which you’ll probably never finish — seems ridiculously impulsive, so you leave it on the shelf.

Lots of food in America ends up in the trash.

The extent of the waste is surprising, according to farm experts gathering last week in Chicago for the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit. Based on the Reuters statistics, you might as well conclude your next grocery shopping run by throwing away three of your dozen eggs. (A whopping 23 percent of them get discarded by the U.S. consumers.)

In fact, pull out $40 worth of your entire produce purchase and drop it in the garbage can. (The average American pitches 33 pounds of food — totaling about 40 bucks — monthly. That calculates to 400 pounds a year.)

Sound crazy?

It’s true. Approximately 40 percent of food produced in the world gets wasted.

“And nobody cares about it,” said Bill Dando, quietly.

In general, of course. A new two-volume book, “Food and Famine in the 21st Century,” explores the causes, effects, history and future of food crises. Recruited by publisher ABC-CLIO, Dando spent six years researching the book, writing half of its 744 pages, and editing (along with his wife, Caroline) the additional contributions from a global team of experts.

Among their many findings, a few conclusions defy the general public’s common misperceptions.

Despite the vast amount of food that goes uneaten, hunger exists, even in the U.S. An estimated 1.2 billion people are malnourished, according to Dando’s book.

Worldwide, political maneuvers cause famine and hunger. Governments use “food as a weapon” by withholding it and blocking or restricting its delivery, Dando said. It happened in the early 20th century in the Soviet Union, which Dando — a professor of geography who retired from Indiana State University — visited 29 times. A politically self-inflicted famine ravaged North Korea from 1995 to 2001. Three regions of the world are suffering through famines right now — southeast Mongolia and northeast China, the Amazon basin, and the largest in Somalia and Ethiopia. Food is currently being withheld for political reasons in Ethiopia and Syria, Dando said.

By contrast, in America, people go hungry because of neglect. “The reason that we have a lot of problems is neglect,” he explained, “a lack of information — maybe even biased or slanted information — about those who are living in poverty and hungry.” Fifty million Americans live in households that are “food insecure,” which means they can’t afford or don’t live near a source of nutritionally adequate groceries. In a nutshell, their city neighborhood may have street vendors or a storefront Burger King, but no fruits and veggies market.

Even though, as Dando put it, “There should not be famine on the surface of the Earth,” the predicament may only grow worse. By 2050 — just 38 years from now — the global population will balloon from the present 7 billion to 9.5 billion. American farmers, who already see 30 to 50 percent of their products dumped into U.S. landfills, will be pressured to help feed those extra 2.5 billion mouths.

“The farmers are doing a pretty darn good job,” Dando emphasized, “but not for 9.5 billion people.”

Much of that population growth will unfold in impoverished urban areas of developing and Third World countries, he said. Those poor, over-burdened “megalopolises” around the equator will be the site of most future famines. Preventing and easing hunger there, and elsewhere, will require nations such as India, China and Brazil to ramp up food production alongside American farmers.

“The United States cannot feed the world,” Dando said. “There are just too many people.”

So, what can an Average Joe or Jane do about it, and why should they care? After all, the U.S. already is home to federal assistance programs and a private network of food pantries and nonprofit agencies.

The first step is simply awareness that hunger and famine continue, despite those efforts, and that the situation could worsen. Those who ignore or refute the existence of climate change prevent remedies. To the doubters, Dando, a 77-year-old author of 26 books on geographic and climatic topics, emphatically affirmed, “The sea level is rising. You can’t dispute it.”

Amid the climate change, acute water shortages are expected, especially as the world population grows and food demand increases. Famine and hunger trigger and perpetuate conflicts, wars and revolution, Dando said.

“You put all these things together,” he added, “and this means we have to work together.”

In the United States, education is a primary cure for hunger. Indiana and Terre Haute have high childhood poverty rates, for example. Business leaders say the state will need an additional 1 million college-trained workers to compete internationally for new employers. Skills learned at community colleges, tech schools and four-year universities lead to better jobs and fewer hungry people.

“If we collectively work, we can eliminate our hunger problem,” Dando said. “We have to help people get out of the cycle of poverty they’re in.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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