18 January 2005


By way of China Miéville saying interesting things in the UK Guardian, Antonio Gramsci reminds us:
The fact that there is no need for people to die of starvation and that people are dying of starvation is a fact of some importance one would think.
Though "need" is a tricky question. If the ability to produce enough food is inextricably linked with a system of agriculture and economics that leaves people unable to afford food, we're cut by a double-edged sword: once we couldn't make enough food to feed everyone, now we make a lot of food in a way that still leaves a lot of people hungry. Or, stranger still, malnourished without being hungry as Mark A. R. Kleiman observes.
  1. Due to the astonishing collapse in the prices of foodstuffs relative to wages and other prices, undernutrition due to poverty is no longer a serious problem in advanced societies, even among the profoundly poor. That's a huge social advance on the conditions of forty years ago, when hunger remained a major problem in the United States. The refusal of conservatives back then to recognize the problem was appalling; the refusal of some liberals today to recognize that the problems have shifted is perhaps less heartless, but no less obtuse.
  2. Even someone who "doesn't know where his next meal is coming from" isn't going to literally go hungry. So using "food insecurity" as a proxy for the serious problem of economic insecurity is misleading.
  3. Malnutrition remains a significant problem. For complex reasons, many Americans, rich and poor alike, have appallingly unhealthy diets.
A hundred years ago, one might have believed that the problem of nourishing everyone was a Malthusian matter of simply producing enough food. Now we see that it's much more complicated than that. Per Gramsci's observation, shouldn't we be working on the problem a little harder?

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