By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
Tackling global hunger requires that we identity its fundamental causes and remove these at the roots. This requires not only the adoption of transformative policies, but a fundamental change in our own values and attitudes.
The Buddha teaches that to effectively solve any problem we have to remove its underlying causes. While the Buddha himself applies this principle to the ending of existential suffering, the same method can be used to deal with many of the challenges we face in the social and economic dimensions of our lives. Whether it be racial injustice, economic disparities, or climate disruption, to resolve these problems we have to dig beneath the surface and extricate the roots from which they spring.
A recent media report from Oxfam International, The Hunger Virus Multiplies, adopts just such an approach to global hunger. While the COVID pandemic has driven world hunger to the outer margins of our awareness, the report points out that more people are actually dying each day from hunger than from the virus. The death rate from COVID is estimated at 7 lives per minute, but hunger claims 11 lives per minute. The reason this statistic does not get the attention it deserves is that, unlike COVID, global hunger is perpetually with us, fluctuating only in degrees of severity.
Since its arrival, however, the coronavirus has pushed the mortality rate from hunger even higher than under pre-pandemic conditions. COVID not only takes lives directly, through its attack on the respiratory system, but imposes the economic downturns that intensify hunger. This threat is particularly ominous for those already struggling to make ends meet. Over the past year, according to the report, the pandemic has driven 20 million more people to extreme levels of food insecurity, while the number living in famine-like conditions has risen sixfold, to more than 520,000.
The report traces the death rate from acute hunger to three deep causes, which it calls “the lethal Cs”: conflict, COVID, and the climate crisis. Conflict is the single most potent driver of global hunger, pushing nearly 100 million people in 23 countries to crisis levels of food insecurity and even to famine. Conflict not only disrupts agricultural production and blocks access to food, but in a war of attrition it is common for the hostile parties to use starvation as a deliberate weapon to crush their opponents. They may block humanitarian relief, bomb local markets, set fields ablaze, or kill livestock—thereby depriving people, especially hapless civilians, of access to food and water.
Violent conflict also aggravates hunger by siphoning funds away from food supplies to the purchase of weapons. Last year alone, global military spending rose by $51 billion, more than six times the $8 billion that the UN has requested to provide food for the hungry. The U.S. continues to spend over $700 billion annually on its military programs, almost a hundred times what is needed to alleviate extreme hunger.
Economic hardship, the second major factor driving global hunger, has been exacerbated over the past two years by the COVID pandemic. The pandemic has forced lockdowns around the globe, driving up poverty levels and causing sharp spikes in hunger. Last year, poverty increased by 16% and over 40 million people in 17 countries faced severe hunger. As food production has declined, food prices around the world rose last year by almost 40 percent, the highest rise in over a decade. This has made food, even when available, unaffordable for many people. Those hit hardest have been women, displaced populations, and informal workers.
Not everyone, however, has suffered economic pain during the pandemic. While billions of people around the world have lost their livelihoods and struggle to subsist from day to day, the corporate elite have turned the pandemic into a windfall, reaping unprecedented profits. In 2020, the wealth of the ten richest people increased by $413 billion, and the trend toward increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the privileged few continues this year as well.
Though no region has been spared the scourge of COVID, in the economically advanced countries the virus’s negative economic impact has been blunted by the ready availability of vaccines. But in the poorer nations, the vaccine remains largely inaccessible, mainly because the pharmaceutical giants in the North have refused to share their formulas with their counterparts in the global South. While antivaxxers and skeptics in the affluent nations refuse to take the shot, billions of poor people around the world who clamor for the life-saving vaccine are told it’s not available.
The third driver of global hunger is the climate crisis. This past year extreme weather events related to climate change have caused unprecedented damage. According to the report, climate disasters—storms, floods, and droughts—pushed nearly 16 million people in 15 countries to crisis levels of hunger. Each climate disaster, the report states, leads us downward into deepening poverty and hunger. Tragically, the countries hit hardest by climate shocks are those with the lowest levels of fossil fuel consumption.
To strike a hopeful note, the Oxfam report proposes seven “urgent actions” needed to stop the hunger crisis and build more just and sustainable food systems. The seven, briefly stated, are:
1. Provide emergency assistance to meet the UN’s global food security appeal, scaling up social protection, and supporting small-scale farmers and pastoralists.
2. Guarantee that humanitarian assistance reaches people, ensuring immediate humanitarian access to save civilians from starvation.
3. Forge inclusive and sustainable peace by bringing hostile parties to the negotiating table.
4. Build fairer, more resilient, and sustainable food systems, especially by increasing investments in small-scale and agro-ecological food production.
5. Promote the participation of women and giving them a greater role in repairing our broken food system.
6. Support a people’s vaccine, ending patents on COVID vaccines and helping poorer countries vaccinate their populations.
7. Take urgent action to tackle the climate crisis, cutting emissions in the rich polluting nations and helping small-scale food producers adapt to climate change.
Looking at the crisis of global hunger from a Buddhist point of view, I would hold that beneath the three causes of hunger outlined in the Oxfam report there lies a deeper web of causation that ultimately stems from the human mind. At the base of conflict and war, extreme economic inequality, and ever more deadly climate devastation we would find the “three root defilements”—greed, hatred, and delusion—along with their many offshoots. Although we cannot expect that these dark dispositions of the human mind will ever be extirpated on a global scale, if we are to solve the interwoven problems of hunger and poverty, we must mitigate, at least to a sufficient extent, their collective manifestations.
Ultimately, the persistence of hunger in our world is a moral failure as much as a sign of flawed policies. Just consider a few hard facts. Each year the world pours out close to $2 trillion on military spending, yet it would take just a tiny sliver of this to eradicate world hunger. Billionaires throw away multiple millions of dollars on vanity flights into outer space, while hundreds of millions of people here on earth languish from lack of food, housing, and medical care. Corporations make exorbitant profits but pay little or no taxes, forcing governments to cut back on basic social services. These facts mark not merely blunders in public policy but moral travesties, an inversion of priorities that ultimately harms everyone. To significantly reduce global hunger we need not only wise policies—as critical as these may be—but a fundamental reorientation in our values that cuts at the roots of economic injustice, militarism, and environmental destruction. Without such inner changes, policy changes will inevitably be limited in impact and diluted by those opposed to them.
I would posit two internal changes as most crucial to our efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger. One is a widening of our sense of empathy, a willingness to embrace in solidarity all those who daily face the harsh struggle to subsist. The other is an intelligent grasp of our long-range good, the wisdom to see that our real common good extends far beyond narrow economic indicators, that we all flourish when we create the conditions for everyone to flourish. We already have at our disposal the means of tackling each of the drivers of global hunger identified in the Oxfam report. What we need is the foresight, the compassion, and the moral courage to enact them and promote them on a sufficiently wide scale.
With a strong commitment to peace, the world’s major powers could bring conflicting parties to the negotiating table and help them resolve their differences. By sharing the COVID vaccine with reliable drug companies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, we could ensure that the world’s poorest people are inoculated and thereby end the pandemic. By adopting fairer taxation policies and investing more in public spending, we could level economic disparities. By making a rapid transition to clean and renewable sources of energy, we could create carbon-neutral economies that preserve the health and vitality of the natural environment.
In short, the means of countering the causes of hunger are already at hand. We fail to adopt them not because they’re beyond our reach but because formidable vested interests stand in the way. Arms manufacturers, military contractors, and security firms benefit from international tensions. Corporate elites benefit from a skewed economy that increasingly concentrates wealth in fewer hands. The big pharmaceutical companies benefit from patents on life-saving vaccines. The fossil fuel industry benefits from an economy dependent on fresh sources of oil and gas. And most of us, when poverty and hunger don’t affect us personally—at least not directly and visibly—simply slouch back into complacency and a benign indifference to the plight of others.
To sustain a movement for social and economic justice, national leaders and ordinary citizens alike must be led by long-range vision, moved by empathy, and bolstered by moral courage to stand up for people and the planet. Empathy is indispensable, and for this we need to expand our sense of identity, to learn to regard those facing daily hardships not as mere abstractions—as statistics or distant “others”—but as human beings fully endowed with inherent dignity. We must see them as essentially like ourselves, sharing our basic desire to live, thrive, and contribute to their communities. We must see that their lives matter to them—and to those who love them—as much as our lives matter to each of us.
But empathy on its own is not enough. We also need a clear insight into our true long-term good as a species sharing a common planet. This means we must look beyond profits and stock values as our criteria of success, taking other standards than rapid economic growth and returns on investments as the ends of global policy. Instead, we must give priority to the values critical to social solidarity and planetary sustainability. These should include, at minimum, providing economic security to all, pursuing racial and gender equality, and protecting the natural environment from reckless exploitation and destruction by commercial interests.
Certainly, we should continue to advocate for the policies and programs offered as antidotes to world hunger. But behind such policies and programs we need changes in our views and attitudes: a right understanding of the human good and a broad commitment to the well-being of all who share this planet with us. By widening our vision, we would see that we can only fully flourish when we establish the conditions for everyone to flourish. With a wide sense of empathy, we’ll strive to create a world in which no one has to go hungry.