Sylvie Brunel is a geographer, economist and writer who has been specialising in the issues of hunger and famine for the past thirty years. She has long worked at NGOs such as Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and Action contre la faim (Action Against Hunger) and consequently has field expertise to feed into her reflections. In the book Nourrir le monde. Vaincre la faim (Nourish the World. Defeat Hunger), published in 2009, Sylvie Brunel explains why she believes that hunger is not a fatality. All we lack is global thinking, and a great deal of determination.
A complex equation
Sylvie Brunel starts her book by stating that “the question of hunger continues to nag.” In fact, almost a billion people today still suffer from undernutrition or malnutrition, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and South America. 80% of them are small farmers who cannot even survive on what they produce. And, while the second half of the 20th century saw hunger and malnutrition retreating everywhere in the world, the process now seems to have stopped. There is growing concern that malnutrition could become a chronic state for large parts of the population. And, as the world population keeps growing and the demand keeps rising, this concern immediately raises another question: will we have enough food to feed everyone? Sylvie Brunel explains that the environmental concerns that have been developing for twenty years now make the equation a little bit more complex: can we produce more food and end hunger while protecting the environment? Can we really be that numerous and still be set free from the mistakes we made in the past, which the planet is starting to pay for now? The geographer wants to provide optimistic answers to these questions. She does not believe that the world population is the problem and that we should curb our demography. She does not believe that starvation and malnutrition are a fatality. She believes that “it is possible to feed the world. It is possible to defeat hunger.” But it won’t happen unless we start to “really want to worry about those suffering from hunger.” In other words, nothing will durably change without political will and commitment.
The mirage of shortage
There is enough food. And we have stocks to face the future. The real problem is not production, it is repartition.
Shortage is a mirage, says the author: the North is voluntarily limiting its production, there are areas in the South that could significantly increase their yields without harming the environment and many arable lands remain untouched. Food production is increasing more rapidly than the population. But, in developing countries, bad choices were made. When independence came, small farmers were massively sacrificed to develop industry, and these countries turned to imports to feed their populations: the North was and still is selling them its over-production at bargain rates. As a result, national production was completely stifled because it could not engage in price competition. Rural depopulation is now worsening the problem: with less and less farmers, how can people in the cities be fed other than with food brought in from outside? Southern countries are therefore completely dependent on the international market, and suffer a great deal with each and every price variation. The international summits that have raised the issue have so far failed to come up with a solution. To Brunel, this is simply because the interests of the strong parties and the weak ones are too divergent to be reconcilable. “Even though the food crisis is global, solutions should be implemented at local levels first”, she writes. States should reaffirm their food sovereignty and institute a “dietary nationalism” that favours their producers.
Giving the small producers an opportunity to make a decent living from their work is the only way to resolve the food dilemma while decreasing the prices of food on internal markets
: she calls for the “revenge of farmers”. This, of course, will happen only if the leaders of these countries put their efforts and commitment into the equation. Other countries will see their populations continue to suffer from hunger, and sometimes starve to death. As the author explains, there are no longer places where famines are chronic: they always happen as a result of wars and conflicts, and are sometimes instrumented by leaders for political purposes or to obtain international aid.
Strong competition between numerous concerns
But there is also another obstacle: “sustainability has reintroduced environmental concerns that have progressively gained priority”. In other words, the food question finds itself in competition with the question of nature preservation and that of agro-fuels and renewable energy, both of which need land dedicated to them. It is thus sometimes relegated to the middle distance. And with sustainability comes the question:
Will we be able to keep increasing agricultural productivity, given that to enhance yields requires methods that pose a threat to the environment and sometimes consumers’ health?
Will we have to choose between feeding everyone at low cost or supporting sustainable agriculture? Sylvie Brunel believes that agriculture is a problem for sustainability. But she also believes that it can be the solution. As both the FAO and the EU Common Agricultural Policy are now stressing, farmers have a greater role to play than “just” supplying food: they should also provide “ecosystemic services” with carbon sequestration, satisfy the agro-fuel raw material demand and help preserve biodiversity.
Although she brings answers in her book, Sylvie Brunel warns that there is no universal solution and we should work on a case by case basis. But there are still a few themes we can take away from her exposé. Food security for the whole of humanity can be attained if the planet’s potential is harnessed using a sustainable approach. To achieve that, adaptation to climate change, notably through new technologies – always keeping common interests in mind – will be absolutely crucial. National farmers should be given preference and provided with decent remuneration for their work: food-producing agriculture is not a solution if there is no way for them to sell their products and make a living from them. They should also be protected from stock market fluctuations by national regulation systems. Sylvie Brunel ends her book with a striking idea: international aid, except in extreme cases, is often counter-productive and sometimes even harmful.
There is no better weapon against hunger than development.
That is the most concise way to express the ideas she presents.