July 25, 2010

Now and again we need to remind ourselves that people are hungry. I happened to visit the new farmer’s market near the White House this week. This is the one that Michelle Obama was instrumental in getting started, arguing that there was a need for better access to fresh, local foods in downtown Washington DC. I was walking with Jaydee Hanson, and we were on our way to a dinner engagement on “Eye” Street. We perused the stalls and Jaydee schmoozed a bit with one of his former interns from the International Center for Technology Assessment. As we were heading off down Eye toward Tuscana West for our dinner, we were accosted by a homeless man soliciting funds. Jaydee’s response was, “I’ll get you on the way back.” To which he replied, “I won’t be here then,” so Jaydee digs into his wallet and gives him a buck or two.

I do this kind of thing occasionally, but maybe not occasionally enough. Thornapple CSA has also made commitments to help hungry people by donating one share and by giving any extra produce that is not picked up by members to Food Movers. From a food ethics perspective, efforts to address hunger by offering a little spare change to a homeless person or making occasional donations to the food bank are important, but they would only be adequate if the reality of hunger were somewhat different than it actually is. Spontaneous acts of charity are ethically important because they are good for the soul; I say nothing against them. They can also do a tremendous amount of good for the recipient, especially when that person is hungry in the colloquial sense. By this I mean that the person is feeling some hunger pangs that will be relieved by a good hot meal, allowing them to get along with the rest of their life. Given the current economic situation in the U.S., we know that families are experiencing hunger in just this sense, some having that experience all too frequently. Assuming they are adequately supported, food banks and relief programs like the Greater Lansing Food Bank or the one I visited in Detroit are a good response to this kind of hunger. They meet the short term food need, and they do so through one of the most basic and universal of human social forms: sharing.

There are some big scale international events that also fit this form. The earthquake in Haiti put most of that nation’s population at risk for hunger, and promises of international assistance can help relieve that hunger while the infrastructure for distributing food grown on the island are rebuilt. Again, the importance of sharing captures what is ethically significant here. But there are also people in Haiti who were hungry before the earthquake, and many of them were hungry in a totally different sense. These are people whose diets are so deficient that they become vulnerable to a large class of health ailments. They are often unable to work, even if work were available to them. Children suffer from deprivations that permanently affect the development of their brains and bodies. It is misleading to describe their problem as one of being hungry. Their problem is one of systemic poverty.

The World Bank estimates that one third of the world’s population is adequately fed, one third inadequately fed and one third starving. I won’t try to guess the percentage of people in that middle third that are “merely hungry” in the sense I describe above. Using phrases like “merely hungry” is actually kind of offensive, but it may be necessary if we are come to the important ethical point. Being merely hungry is a terrible fate, one that’s associated with suffering I am sure that I cannot adequately imagine. Indeed, the “merely hungry” very likely suffer more in terms of felt pain and anguish than do those whose persistent hunger is life threatening in the near term, and compromising their lifetime opportunities, to boot. The human body eventually adapts to this state of persistent deprivation, and silences the gnawing pangs that are impossible to ignore. Nonetheless, we face a global situation in which perhaps half of the world’s population is experiencing a state of food deprivation that both compels a moral response, and remains exceedingly difficult to address. We would be badly mistaken if we thought that acts of sharing or charity represent a morally appropriate response to their problems, even if continuing to provide support for food assistance whenever and wherever possible continues to be a moral duty for all of us in the one third who are adequately fed. These problems of persistent poverty are problems of development ethics, rather than food ethics. Development ethics is a tortuous domain in which our best intentions and our moral intuitions often fail us. The work here is serious, and frankly too complex to be taken up in a lighthearted blog.

I argue that food ethics enters into development ethics through the door marked “agriculture”, rather than the door marked “hunger.” Many of that third in extreme poverty are poor because they work in agriculture. Doing things that help hungry people in cities (like giving away food surpluses) actually hurts those poor farmers, who would otherwise get a more reasonable return for their crop. This is a problem I have once before described as “the fundamental tension” in agricultural ethics. It is a problem that is not going away any time soon.

Yet it’s not a reason to look the other way when a needy person approaches you for a handout. There are complex ethical issues here, too, and they can assume tragic proportions in certain cases. On the one hand, we know that there are people out there who exploit our praiseworthy tendency toward sharing. We feel stupid when exploited, and this may make us defensive and resistant to sharing. I know that I fall prey to this when I look away and walk past people like the man that Jaydee and I encountered on Thursday evening. On the other hand, loosening up and helping out on a case by case basis is not what’s keeping developing country farmers in extreme poverty. For that, you need to look toward international trade and monetary policies and toward bad governments in their own country. And many of those people asking for a buck or two are very hungry. Sharing with them is good all the way around.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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