Two sets of statistics that bookend a single issue have been kicking around for at least a year, but suddenly they’ve made headlines in everything from Scientific American to the Guardian and Medical News .
Depending on the metrics used — one set quantifies the number of people who are obese, the other the number who are overweight — there is an amazing but disturbing verisimilitude or an amazing but disturbing imbalance.
By one estimate, nearly 800 million people in the world go hungry every day. The same number of people are clinically obese.
The other set of bookends puts 1.3 billion people, or nearly one-sixth of the world’s population, as overweight, and 800 million as underweight. By that reckoning, for the first time in world history there are more fat people than hungry people.
Statistically, the only debate seems to be over obesity vs. overweight and the numbers at that end of the scale. Since the UN Food and Agriculture Organization established the number of the world’s undernourished at an annual average of 854 million during 2001-03, those statistics have stabilized around that point.
This reveals another sad truth: Despite the fact that the world produces enough food to meet the energy and protein needs of every living person and despite concerted efforts such as the 1996 World Food Summit, where political leaders from virtually every country on Earth agreed to reduce the number of hungry people by half by 2015, the number of people not getting enough food has remained about the same. (China has succeeded in decreasing its hungry population, but in about half the countries, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers of hungry people have increased.)
Morally, the debate is not over what is wrong with this picture, but what to do about it. For while the corollary makes for predictable headlines, the contradiction is almost too bleak and — dare I say it? — too weighty to sink in.
The image looms of 800 million people scraping the food off the plates of another 800 million unfortunate souls and stuffing their faces with it.
Some obese people literally carry around the weight of a whole other human being. If you characterize the two symbolic humans to be, say, one bloated overweight Canadian or Briton and one skeletal Nicaraguan or Nigerian, you get the picture.
Much of the blame for this miserable inequity, says people like local food activist Herb Barbolet or former World Bank employee turned food activist, Raj Patel, lies in the radical vertical integration of food supply. As Patel puts it in his new book, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System , it’s the way a handful of corporations have been allowed to capture the value of the food chain.