I think about this almost daily in my job at the World Food Program USA, because an even greater number have died of hunger. We see it in the news everyday—a rise in the absolute number of hungry people, an unprecedented four looming famines and of more hungry people displaced from their homes because of violence, conflict and persecution than any other time since the Second World War.
But it’s worth recalling a quote from the author, F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of true intelligence,” he wrote, “is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time.” This is fundamentally true of global hunger today. Because over the last 20 years, over 200 million people have been lifted out of hunger. Famines still occur, but they kill far fewer people than ever before thanks to early warning systems and improved humanitarian responses. We have never had better tools to fight food insecurity.
At the risk of quoting another 20th century author, in the fight to end hunger, it is the best of times and it is the worst of times. So while the headlines can feel disheartening, as a person that follows global hunger trends for a living, I can tell you this with absolute certainty: We are winning the long game in the fight to end hunger.
The “Availability Heuristic”
Consider these two headlines:
- World Faces ‘Unprecedented’ Hunger as Famine Threatens Four Countries
- World Hunger is Increasing Thanks to Wars and Climate Change
Stories like this come at us at warp speed today—a never-ending stream of push notifications onto cell phones that never leave our hands.
The frequency with which we see information like this is important for how we perceive the world. In his latest book, Enlightenment Now, famed psychologist, Steven Pinker describes a phenomenon called the “availability heuristic.” This is the idea that people estimate the probability of an event by the ease with which instances come to mind. With hunger, the instances are many. If we were to allow the headlines of the day to dictate our assessment of the state of food security in the world, we’d be overwhelmed by our apparent failure. Because this is what global hunger looks like over the past three years (Figure 1).
Between 2015 and 2016, the number of hungry people on the planet rose from 777 million to 815 million, driven by a proliferation of man-made crises. Increases in the outright number of hungry people in the world have happened in the past, as recently as a decade ago following the global food price spike crises of 2007/8. While there are important (and worrying) reasons to believe that this upward tick may be unique relative to previous “relapses,” in the words of Steven Pinker: “It would be astonishing if any measure of human behavior with all its vicissitudes ticked downward by a constant amount per unit of time, decade after decade and century after century.” He states further, “Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how do we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.”
More specifically, we count further back in time. While it is true that the number of hungry people is on the rise again, the general trend in hunger over the past decade tells a far different story (Figure 2). It wasn’t long ago, in fact, that we were speaking of a billion hungry people on the planet. This recent spikes hides a brighter medium and long-term trend.
As we broaden our lens even further, there is more good news. Thanks to research by Alex de Waal, we’re able to see dramatic progress in with regard to famine prevention and response specifically (Figure 3). In his latest book Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, de Waal shows that deaths from famine today are occurring at a fraction of what they have historically. “Our ultimate goal,” writes de Waal, “is to render mass starvation so morally toxic, that it is universally publicly vilified. We aim to make mass starvation unthinkable, such that political and military leaders in a position to inflict it or fail to prevent it, will unhesitatingly ensure that it does not occur, and the public will demand this of them.” There is some evidence to suggest that we’re doing just that.
In short, we can fight the availability heuristic when we choose to take a step back. It is when we look at progress in the long arc of human history that we see just how close we are to ending hunger for good. Hunger is not just a challenge of our generation—it is a battle that human beings have been fighting for millennia. And the story of our progress in ending hunger falls into clear stages, or quarters if you’ll allow a football reference. This is how that game has played out.
The First Quarter
In the first quarter, we fought a battle against population growth. Thomas Malthus, the English philosopher and cleric, prophesized in the 1798 in his book, Essay on the Principle of Population, that food production would not keep pace with population growth, leading to resource competition, violent conflict and mass starvation. It was through war and suffering that equilibrium would be returned to the global food system.
Thus began the battle between “Malthusians,” like Thomas, and so-called “Cornucopians”—those that thought humans would successfully engineer their way out the population dilemma. The Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s successfully staved off Malthus’ doomsday scenario on a global scale, with industrial agriculture and improved seeds and practices winning the day.