Tacio: The hunger games

“THERE is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control,” American Congressman Jan Schakowsky once said. “We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.”

This statement came to mind while reading the report that there more Filipinos who are hungry than ever. According to a new survey by pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS), more Filipinos experienced hunger in March, with about 3.9 million Filipino families saying they had nothing to eat at some point during that time.

In its poll conducted from March 19 to 22 and posted on its media partner “Business World,” SWS said that the 3.9 million families or 19.2 percent of Filipino families that experienced hunger was higher than 16.3 percent in December.

This was despite a decline in self-rated poverty to 52 percent during March, or some 10.6 million families, from 54 percent in December, the SWS noted. It added hunger increased among both the poor and the non-poor, even as it pointed out March’s figures were still below the record 23.8 percent recorded last year.

Hunger is the physical sensation of desiring food. When politicians, relief workers and social scientists talk about people suffering from hunger, they usually refer to those who are unable to eat sufficient food to meet their basic nutritional needs for sustained periods of time.

Hunger is common not only in the Philippines but throughout the world. In 2007 and 2008, rapidly increasing food prices caused a global food crisis, increasing the numbers suffering from hunger by over a hundred million. Food riots erupted in several dozen countries; in at least two cases, Haiti and Madagascar, this led to governments being toppled.

A second global food crisis occurred due to the spike in food prices of late 2010 and early 2011. Less food riots occurred due in part to greater stock piles of food being available for relief; however several analysts have argued it was one of the causes of the Arab Spring.

Is there a solution in sight? “I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well advance in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug pointed out. “The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology?”

Dr. Borlaug, touted to be the “Man Who Saved A Billion Lives,” was referring to biotechnology. “While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot,” the American agronomist deplored.

Biotechnology, for the information of the uninformed, encompasses an array of tools and applications that allow scientists to manipulate the genetic materials of plants, microbes, and animals. These methods provide ways to modify the characteristics that are passed from one generation to the next.

Ismail Serageldin, during his time as vice-president of World Bank, sees biotechnology playing a crucial part of agriculture in the 21st century. “All possible tools that can help promote sustainable agriculture for food security must be marshaled,” he said, “and biotechnology, safely developed, could be a tremendous help.”

Biotechnology’s primary contribution to the agricultural sector will be to increase the actual amount of food that can be grown on the planet. “At current rates of population growth, conventional techniques may soon be insufficient if farming is to keep pace with the scale of increases required in the 21st century,” wrote Victor Villalobos in an article which appeared in Ceres, a publication of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Genetic engineering, Villalobos believes, will not only provide varieties with higher yields, shorter maturity periods and broader resistance characteristics, “it will also greatly reduce the time needed to evolve and screen them.”

All is not rosy, however. “I believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone,” deplored Prince Charles in 1998.

Dr. Peter Wills, a theoretical biologist at Auckland University, agrees: “By transferring genes across species barriers which have existed for eons, we risk breaching natural thresholds against unexpected biological processes.”

“If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years,” Dr. Borlaug deplored.

One sage puts it in perspective: “A man who has enough food has several problems. A man without food has only one problem.” Or as Horace puts it: “Only a stomach that rarely feels hungry scorns common things.”

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