By Charles W. Elliot
Posted here with the permission of Buddhist Global Relief
The simplest act of eating a piece of fruit is inevitably embedded in a complex web of systems: economic, agricultural, financial, and environmental. In attending mindfully to this act, we can discern myriad interdependent phenomena: the beginningless origins of its seeds, the earth from which the fruit grew, the laboring hands that brought the food to our table. The same mindfulness will show how our own lives depend upon the efforts of others, the essential kindness of countless strangers. And in recalling this kindness, we should be ready to take steps to repay it. One such way is to carefully consider the needs of others, and where we find that basic human needs remain unmet because of injustice, we should be motivated to act.
The Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition states that “society today already possesses sufficient resources, organisational ability and technology and hence the competence to [eradicate hunger].” While food supplies are abundant, access to that food is not. In 2010, 925 million people suffered from chronic hunger, representing one in seven of a global population approaching 7 billion.
Access to adequate food, as indispensable to basic human survival, is a matter of social justice. One of the earliest pronouncements of global governance on fundamental human rights was the U.N. General Assembly’s simple declaration: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food[.]” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, paragraph 1, 1948.) If food has been recognized as a human right since the end of World War II, and if society has the resources and competence to end hunger, we should ask ourselves: why are so many millions still hungry?
Of course, there is no single answer to that question. Like all other phenomena, the persistence and spread of human hunger is a complex dependent-arising involving many interwoven causes. Two disturbing factors are financial speculation, which drove commodity prices sky-high in 2007-2008, and the increasing diversion of crops from food production to biofuel production. Thus, the portion of U.S. corn grown to produce corn-based ethanol rose from 15% in 2006 to an estimated 40% in 2011. Other factors include catastrophic weather conditions such as droughts and floods, and global climate change, which has an adverse impact on water supplies and land, especially in the developing world. At the same time, urban sprawl reduces available farmland, while the urban middle class consumes more meat and processed food, which in turn demands more land, water, and energy.
While resources for food dwindle, governmental policies, particularly in the West, have become increasingly hostile to the poor. The shredding of social safety nets puts at risk an ever-larger number of people who need help in the face of poor economic conditions. Last year, about 25% of the House of Representatives voted to eliminate foreign food aid. Such policies appeal to the notion that the world is a zero-sum game, that any help we offer another family will mean that we get less and that we cannot afford fairness. Here in the U.S. help for the poor is in jeopardy. In my home state of Pennsylvania, food stamp use has risen 50% from 1.2 million people in 2008 to 1.8 million today. Despite the increasing need driven by the Great Recession, the current governor proposes to disqualify anyone with assets of more than $5,500—for example, a bank account or a second car—from food stamp eligibility. As a result, it is estimated that 4,023 Pennsylvania households will lose their food stamp benefits on May 1 of this year.
Battling institutional and entrenched social injustice helps alleviate hunger because poverty is at the root of hunger, and the root cause of poverty is powerlessness: the “powerlessness of those who lack resources such as land and water to grow food, jobs to earn money to buy food, an adequate food safety net and food reserves, and adequate nutrition.” (The Downward Spiral of Hunger: Causes & Solutions)
There are many small steps we can take to end hunger, but we must be prepared to respond to the call of conscience to help others and to restore social justice. A key step is to rebuild and enhance small-scale local food systems and turn away from globally concentrated control of food production and distribution. Ultimately, we should reject the domination of agriculture by large corporate agribusiness, and confront corporate attempts to control the very seeds of life with their patented genetically-modified “single generation” seeds.
At the neighborhood scale here in the U.S., community food gardens are springing up even in major cities like New York City and Detroit. Food waste and post-harvest losses could be remedied to make more food available to those in need. Greater investment in small-scale agriculture in rural areas and urban agriculture in the cities would empower the poor and hungry.
At Buddhist Global Relief, we are taking our own small steps. For example, we provide village-scale training in intensified rice cultivation to rural farmers in Cambodia and Vietnam, helping to build their capacity and confidence in applying sustainable agriculture techniques. These techniques dramatically boost yields without expensive external inputs. BGR funds tools and seeds to impoverished families in Cambodia to grow cash crops and home vegetable gardens. Following each harvest, each family then gives the same amount of seed they received to another local family, thus establishing a community of mutual support. BGR helps train villagers in Kenya and Malawi in small-scale agricultural techniques that nurture healthy soil fertility, produce high yields, conserve resources, and meet the basic need of people to independently feed themselves.
Such small steps, taken collectively by Buddhist Global Relief and countless others, are helping to empower the poor, reduce poverty, and alleviate the suffering of hunger. Neither the complexity of the manifold causes of hunger nor the daunting statistics of global poverty should deter us from acting out of compassion and generosity. In the Buddhist tradition, the embodiment of compassion, Avalokiteshvara – Guanyin – Kwannon, is often depicted not just with a thousand eyes to gaze upon the suffering in the world, but with a thousand hands to aid those who suffer. Of course, not even a thousand arms are enough to help the billion people who suffer from hunger. But if we recognize each motivated human heart as the eyes and hands of Avalokiteshvara, each of us acting in our own way, in our own communities, might yet help to end hunger in our generation.
Charles W. Ellliott, a member of the Board of Directors of Buddhist Global Relief, is a lawyer practicing environmental, land use, and human rights law.
© 2012, photo and essay, Buddhist Global Relief, All rights reserved