The Billionaire vs. the Global Hunger

A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them

After meeting two monster deadlines, here, finally, is this week’s newsletter.

I know lots of people have already covered this, but of course, I couldn’t not cover this twitter battle between the world’s richest man and the World Food Programme, the UN food aid agency and recipient of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. So below are my two cents’ worth.

Brief Recap

In case you’ve been living under a rock here’s what’s been happening.

On Oct 19, exactly a month ago, David Beasley, the head honcho of WFP tweeted this to his 77,999 followers.

Btw, this isn’t the first time Beasley has called out the world’s richest dudes to spend some of their money to feed people on the brink of starvation.

Anyway, CNN translated his October tweet, which was about preventing starvation, as solving “world hunger” - #facepalm - and this was picked up by a conservative pundit, who, incidentally, has 78,017 twitter followers (18 more than Beasley).

Still with me? Ok, Elon Musk (64 million followers ) responded to that tweet in a Musk-y way, with bombast and skepticism.

What’s the latest?

What does Thin Think?

The whole Twitter exchange left me amused (a little) and frustrated (a lot). A comms professional who works in this space summed up my feelings perfectly so I’m just going to quote them here.

“On one hand, it’s nice that this issue is getting such high profile attention but on the other it seems very muddy to me what is even being discussed, and I’d say that muddiness allows many (including many with the means to make a difference!) to brush off the idea that we even can end hunger with sufficient funding.”

I see the column inches that have been dedicated to this debate and I think it’s good that other people are talking and writing about it. But it annoys the heck out of me when I see people conflate acute hunger with chronic hunger (see below) or when they question if ending hunger is even possible.

This 8-min programme from NPR, this CBC article and this Devex piece all look beyond the headlines and are worth a read.

Where’s The Mud?

Beasley was talking about feeding 42 million people suffering from acute hunger for one year.

Acute hunger is serious but is a result of recent shocks like COVID-19, natural disasters, armed conflicts, etc. but in this debate, it got conflated with chronic hunger, which is endemic and requires resolving systematic issues like inequality, environmental destruction, long-running armed conflicts, and harmful subsidies and other government policies that look at food as commodities and not as an essential lifeline.

The number of people suffering from chronic hunger was estimated to be between 720 million and 811 million people in 2020, according to the latest stats from the UN.

Can we truly end hunger?

Is this a rhetorical question? Well, in theory, we can. There are some estimates around how much it would cost to tackle this.

In this 2018 paper, researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) broke down the different approaches and numbers. The first four are from the paper.

  1. The Achieving Zero Hunger approach from the UN food agencies “takes aim at hunger by way of ending poverty - thus the investments are focused on ensuring that people have adequate income and resources to get the food they need.”
    Cost - an additional US$265 billion per year to achieve this by 2030

  2. IFPRI’s IMPACT model which looks at the effects of boosting agricultural productivity on food security and the environment (remember, climate-induced disasters and weather anomalies —> crop failures/lower yields = more hunger).
    Cost - $52 billion annually until 2030 but about 10% of people in Eastern and Central Africa would remain at risk of hunger.

  3. Ending Hunger: What Would It Cost - a joint project of IFPRI and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
    Cost - an additional US$11 billion, on average, invested annually from 2015 to 2030 but could still leave more than 5% of the population in 73 countries still hungry. (Also, a bit too late now?)

  4. The Investment Framework for Nutrition from the World Bank estimates the cost of improving nutrition outcomes and practices to move toward some of the World Health Assembly goals by 2025. Cost - additional US$7 billion annually from 2015 to 2025.

  5. Ceres2030 model (where IFPRI is a partner) identified 10 key shifts that could lift nearly 500 million people out of hunger, double the incomes of 545 million small farmers in low and middle income countries, and limit agricultural emissions by 2030.
    Cost - an extra $33 billion a year till 2030. Note: this paper came out in 2020 - I wrote about it here https://news.trust.org/item/20201012154603-vplke/ - so we are already two years behind on this too.

Putting Things in Perspective

  • Global Spending on Military in 2020 - $1,981 billion, an increase of 2.6% in real terms from 2019. Yes, you read that right. That’s nearly $2 TRILLION.

    Thanks to SIPRI for the stats and you can read more about who’s spending what behind the eye-popping stats here.

So yes, we *can* end hunger or at least we can end the worst parts of hunger. If we want to.

What Else?

Famines and mass starvations are almost never about the availability of food. We produce enough food to feed the world. A key issue is access and often, someone is blocking it. It’s a political decision. It’s often a weapon of war or control. I’ve seen that in many parts of my native Myanmar.

Don’t just take it from me. Here’s a 90-min talk from the guy who wrote a book about it - Alex de Waal. If you prefer a shorter read, here are his essays in the London Review of Books and the New Internationalist.

The Right To Food

“The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”

This is a key human right. Read more here.

Last Word

I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we should be relying on billionaire philanthropists, whether they be Musk, Bezos or Gates, to solve the world’s problems. In fact, I’m just not comfortable with the idea of billionaires sitting side by side with up to 811 million people who go to bed hungry, particularly in this day and age.

Paul Behrens, a professor at Leiden University and author of this great science book, said it much better than I could when I interviewed him exactly a year ago so I’m just gonna quote him instead.

“I’m fairly negative on the idea that predominantly older white men billionaires are gonna be the solution. These are the symptoms of a problem.

Is it that we want to be outsourcing, you know, the very important things that we need to fix in the world, to individuals who get to choose exactly what they want to do? These things are dangerous because we need better democracy in the future… and inequality degrades democracies.”


As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail thin@thin-ink.net.