Given that I proposed a food issue more than two years ago, it is my great pleasure to finally present to you the Politics of Food. While the culinary and gastronomic—the world of foie gras and Big Macs—might seem out of the norm for the Harvard Political Review, this cover in fact epitomizes the kind of politics that lies at the heart of our mission; it goes far beyond the daily tracking polls and horse race of cable news. At the HPR, we believe that politics, broadly construed, touches and shapes every human endeavor. And, of course, few are more basic than eating.
It is amazing how intricate this most fundamental of human activities has become. We take so much of the sustenance and flavor of food for granted, but it was only a few hundred years ago that conquistadors brought the tomato to Europe and Asia. Since then, stunning advances in agricultural technology, including the Green Revolution, have made possible a world that can sustain a staggering seven billion people.
Developed economies also owe much to increasingly efficient agricultural sectors, which have freed citizens to pursue education and innovation in other industries. And today, globalization has brought American fast food across the world and made fresh foods more available than ever before.
The human story of food, then, has largely been one of continual progress: better food, more food, safer food. Yet, however far we’ve come in promoting sustainable agriculture or in tackling the obesity crisis in America, the story remains one of glaring failure. Some 900 million people go hungry every day, and one in four children in the developing world is critically underweight.
These are often the statistics of guilt and dismay, and they should be. But this year, they are also ones of hope. Though the absolute number of malnourished has increased in recent years, as a proportion of the world population, the hungry have dropped from 35 percent in 1970 to just 16 percent in 2010.
Most promisingly, developing countries are finally beginning to recover from the food crisis of 2008 and the global economic slowdown. In their combined wake, food prices shot up, millions went unemployed, and credit and aid flows contracted. We are, today, exactly where we were a decade ago: 16 percent of the world remains hungry.
But now, we have an unprecedented technological capacity to end hunger. Bill Gates has invested smartly in research on disease-resistant grains and called for a digital revolution in using genetically modified foods and satellite imagery to improve farm yields. While these policies will doubtlessly save lives, extreme hunger is not a technological problem; there is enough food to feed the world. The calories needed by the world’s hungry could be provided with one percent of the global food supply. At its core, extreme hunger is about politics. Nobel laureate and Harvard professor Amartya Sen once wrote, “there is no such thing as an apolitical food problem.”
We can end extreme hunger in our lifetimes. But in our age of technological miracles and government dysfunction, it is, ironically, more politics, not more technology that will be the answer. It is no coincidence that the rise of capitalist China was the greatest decrease in malnutrition in human history. Economic growth is the be-all and end-all of solving extreme hunger. To finally feed the world, then, we need strong governments and sound economic policy. And that’s all politics.