As increasing population makes larger demands on world food reserves, millions of lives hang in the balance. Will there be enough food to avert widespread f amine? Where will the food come from? Will affluent nations be required to lower their standard of living to supply massive shipments of grain? Whose responsibility is it to feed a hungry world?
One-fifth of the human race faces possible starvation or severe malnutrition. In many parts of the world, 30 to 50 percent of the children die before age five, millions of them because they simply cannot get enough food. Many survive but with permanent damage to their minds and bodies. "No tragedy is more wounding than the look of despair in the eyes of a starving child," stated former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the 1974 World Food Conference in Rome. "Therefore, today, we must proclaim a bold objective — that within a decade no child will go to bed hungry, that no family will fear for its next day's bread, and that no human being's future and capacities will be stunted by malnutrition." But Kissinger's lofty proclamation was strikingly lacking in specific pledges of American food assistance for the starving nations of the world — an omission that highlights one of the most profound and agonizing moral questions of our day: Whose responsibility is it to feed the world? Are Americans, with their bountiful crops, morally obligated to supply sustenance to those less fortunate? Without question, the American people have repeatedly responded to the needs of the starving peoples of our planet. In the past ten years, they have provided 84 percent of all food aid given by the developed countries. Millions of tons of grain and billions of dollars in assistance have flowed from the U.S. to the hungry peoples of the world. Yet, what aid the U.S. has given — however generous — has not been enough to satisfy many international food officials. "The United States must assume principal responsibility for preventing future world food disasters," asserts Dr. Sartaj Aziz, deputy director of the World Food Council. But the U.S., according to Aziz, has unjustifiably liquidated its food reserves. Furthermore, says Aziz, "the overconsumption of food in the rich countries is at least one factor in the relative scarcity of supplies for the poor."
Food, Politics, and Confrontation
Third-World spokesmen also warn darkly of "retaliations and confrontations" if the developed world does not provide more agricultural and technological assistance. Dr. Gelia Castillo, a rural sociologist at the University of the Philippines, says the world's affluent have little need for solutions to widespread hunger and malnutrition and often stand in the way of change. "I have no illusions that the rich of the earth, whether in the developed or the developing countries, would substantially and deliberately alter their life-styles so that the lower 40 percent might have a better lot in life," observes Castillo. "If they do change, that is probably because they are convinced that it is to their best self-interest." And what might that self-interest be? Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos has called on the world's rich nations to share their wealth with the Third World or face the alternatives of "war or death." Marcos stated that unless the world's resources are shared equitably, "it would not be a question of whether but how soon the ever growing number of the world's poor would challenge the ever diminishing number of rich for a just sharing of these resources. "The rich nations of the world have no realistic alternative," warned Marcos, "other than to cooperate with the Third World if they want to avoid confrontation." But with oil prices becoming an increasing burden to the U.S. economy as well as to other developed countries, a powerful impetus has been generated to trade excess food for vitally needed energy supplies. With the mounting worldwide demand for food, the era of massive free food aid may be over. "We'd be fools not to parlay our agricultural abundance for whatever trade concessions we can get," said one observer. "The Arabs may have the crude, but we have the food."
To a number of thinkers, especially Garrett Hardin, a human ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a future food crunch should be handled in much the same way those on a lifeboat would handle themselves in a disaster. "Each rich nation amounts to a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people," says Hardin. "The poor of the world are in other, much more crowded lifeboats. Continuously, so to speak, the poor fall out of their lifeboats and swim for awhile in the water outside, hoping to be admitted to a rich lifeboat, or in some other way to benefit from the goodies on board. What should the passengers on a rich lifeboat do?" Hardin's point is that if the passengers in the rich lifeboat take on the poor swimmers, their boat will eventually become overcrowded and swamped and they will all lose their lives. Logically, therefore, they should not admit any more people into their boat. By analogy, the "lifeboat theorists" believe that if the rich countries undertake massive grain sharing with the poor, their own economies will suffer and, conceivably, they could even so draw down their own food supplies as to make themselves vulnerable to famine. Critics say such an approach is morally repugnant, but Hardin and his associates claim that this approach is not as hardhearted as it initially sounds: In fact, they argue that it is a deeply moral, even altruistic course of action. Hardin maintains that if the United States were to sacrifice its own standard of living to send massive shipments of food to India, it would only mean that so many more people would be kept alive and would eventually procreate and make the task of feeding them that much greater. Eventually, the time would come when it would be physically impossible for the U.S. to feed them all, and, at that time, many more people would end up starving to death than would have if the United States had never sent food in the first place. "Every life saved this year diminishes the quality of life for subsequent generations," Hardin maintains. The main criticism of the lifeboat approach comes from those who disagree with the lifeboat analogy itself. Some charge that the lifeboat approach assumes the worst possible thing will happen: No means will eventually be found to feed the extra people which current aid would keep alive. Furthermore, they fear that lifeboat ethics would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the rich nations do not try to help the poor nations develop their own agricultural resources, millions of people will be condemned to death, when a decent effort on the part of the "have" nations in that area could have prevented it. Critics also maintain that Hardin errs when he says that the rich nations would be swamped if they were to "take on" the poor. They contend that there is a great deal more "fat" and surplus in the rich nations than Hardin would allow for, and that while the rich nations might not enjoy "first-class berths," their lifeboat wouldn't exactly be swamped. As one critic put it: "Before you start pitching people out of lifeboats, you could at least get rid of the golf clubs."
Finally, critics point out that whole nations simply do not starve quietly. Some nations might even attempt nuclear blackmail to prevent the rich nations from withholding aid. In such a case, it might be more profitable — even from the standpoint of the rich nations' own self-interest — to make an all-out effort in food aid and agricultural development in the Third World. "India was only the first of many poor nations to decide, given the near-certainty of famine, that nuclear weapons are a better investment for survival than tractors and fertilizer," says former Pentagon-think-tank researcher Lowell Ponte. "If poor nations have nuclear capability," concludes Ponte, "they will use such weapons openly against their neighbors, or terrorists [will] threaten the United States to demand a share of a shrinking world food supply." Fortunately, present U.S. food policy is not being dictated by viable threats of nuclear blackmail. But the hotly debated moral question of food reserves and food aid continues unabated.
Another approach to the food crisis is "triage," a term taken from the World War I method of sorting wounded soldiers into various categories for treatment with scarce medical supplies. According to triage, wounded soldiers were grouped into three categories: those who would survive even if they didn't receive any medical help, those who might survive if they received medical help, and those who would die no matter how much medical help was lavished on them. As it applies to the food crisis, triage means that some countries would purposely be denied aid because they would "survive" anyway, and others would be denied aid because they would be considered beyond help. The triage idea was adapted to the world food shortage by William and Paul Paddock in their 1967 book Famine 1975! The book assumed continual population growth in the poor nations and, eventually, a "time of famine" when this growth would overwhelm available food sources. At such a point, the Paddocks argued, the U.S. and other agricultural-surplus countries should "ration" food aid on the basis of how much ultimate good it would do. They even made practical suggestions: Pakistan and Tunisia were judged good candidates for survival if they were given aid; Libya and Gambia would probably get along without it; and India and Haiti were deemed beyond hope. But William Paddock now agrees with Hardin: "When we wrote that book [Famine 1975!], we were still very much in favor of foreign aid," observes Paddock. "We only wanted it better targeted. But now I feel we should cut down on aid because of what has happened since about 1970. I don't see any difference between me and Hardin; I think Garrett Hardin is completely right in his interpretation." Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, is equally pessimistic. "Cruel as it may sound, if the developed and affluent nations do not intend the colossal, all-out effort commensurate with this task, then it may be wiser to 'let nature take its course,'" advises Handler.
Need vs. Greed
"I can't agree with the lifeboat strategy of total abandonment, or the triage strategy of selective abandonment for today's world," counters outspoken climatologist Stephen Schneider in his recent book The Genesis Strategy. "Rather," says Schneider, "we should redouble our efforts, perhaps through a Global Survival Compromise, to take advantage of the precious little time that may remain and use it to improve that real world situation." What is Schneider's Global Survival Compromise? Essentially, he contends that the rich countries of the world must control their excessive consumption, recognize the desperate need of the poor countries, and supply them with massive aid-food, technology, capital investment — in the hope that their populations can be controlled and that future catastrophe can thus be averted. "I hold few illusions that the nations of the world will easily band together politically through some type of Global Survival Compromise and act in time to prevent a few terrible human disasters," laments Schneider, "[but] individual efforts to reduce the danger can indeed make a difference and, thus, we should not be discouraged individually from trying simply because others do not promptly join us. In the end, though, only our collective labors will yield any real chance of total success." Needless to say, Schneider's Global Survival Compromise stands in sharp contrast to the more pessimistic approaches of lifeboat ethics and triage.
Of Ethics and Conscience
Yet whatever one's long-term evaluation of man's ability to conquer famine and starvation, the stark reality of present-day suffering should not be overlooked. The Bible is filled with admonitions to give bread to the hungry (Ezek. 18:7, 16), and assist those in need (Isa. 58:7). Indeed, even one's enemies are to be treated with compassion. "If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink" (Prov. 25:21). In the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), Jesus emphasized that all men are our neighbors and that Christians, like the Samaritan, should come to the aid of those who are hungry and destitute. The apostle James proclaimed that true religion is inextricably tied to ministering to the Poor, the fatherless and the widow (James 1:27). "If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone" (James 2:15-17). And in one of the most convicting and conscience-pricking accounts in all of Scripture (Matt. 25:34-40), Christ speaks of a future time when He will say to the righteous: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom.... For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. "Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?... And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto. One of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." For America and other nations which claim to derive most of their fundamental moral principles from the Bible and the Judeo-Christian ethic, there is no question that we have at least some responsibility to show compassion for the Poor and destitute, and to help feed the World's hungry. But how much aid, in what form, and for how long are knotty and soul-searching questions — questions which can only be answered by our deepest and most personal convictions.