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The Cost of Inaction

Hunger currently affects 925 million people around the world, and this situation is only expected to worsen if extreme measures are not taken (IFPRI, 2010).  Without immediate and sustained action, we risk plunging further into the food security disaster as weather patterns wreak havoc with traditional farming methods, population explodes in the most food-insecure areas of the world, biodiversity disappears, and farmland becomes depleted and useless (see outlook for food security). The time to act is now.

Acting now to combat world hunger will have significant monetary benefits in the future.  A recent study by ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency, estimates that hunger costs poor countries approximately $450 billion per year in lost GDP due to reduced worker productivity, poor health and lost education. The methodology used to arrive at this number was actually quite conservative, as it used an assumption of only a 3.5% reduction in GDP due to child malnutrition (estimates for this number range from 2%-12%). Furthermore, it used the assumption that child hunger will be halved by 2015, which is not expected to occur. To put this number of $450 billion in perspective, it is ten times more than the amount needed to meet the MDG goal of halving hunger by 2015 (ActionAid, 2010).  Over a 100 year period, this cost would add up to approximately $45 trillion dollars. According to the description of the methodology in which ActionAid established this estimate, the $450 billion approximation is actually quite conservative, as it uses the assumption that child hunger will be halved by 2015. This means the true cost may be higher, especially if the goal of halving the number of undernourished children fails to be met (ActionAid, 2010).  If we fail to act, however, the price to fight hunger will most likely increase, while poor countries will continue to remain hungry due to the poverty trap.

Failing to address undernourishment of mother and infants also has further economic costs.  As one of many such examples, the number of children who are undernourished in utero, during their first two years, or both can cause developing countries to experience GDP losses of 2-3 percent per year, with some estimates as high as 6% (IFPRI, 2010).  

On the other hand, investments in food security often come with huge returns. For example, in 2008, a panel of experts during the Copenhagen Consensus determined that investments in micro-nutrient supplements for children yield returns of between $14 (for zinc) and $17 (for vitamin A) for every 1 dollar spent (IFPRI, 2010). A 2008 IFPRI study of the impact of supplements given to Guatemalan boys determined that the boys given high energy, high protein within the first two years earned a 46% higher wage on average as adults than those who did not receive the supplements. However, the boys who were given the supplements within the first three years, only received 37% higher wages on average, while after the age of three, nutritional supplements appeared to have no effect on the wages the children earned as adults (IFPRI, et. al., 2008).

While the monetary cost of inaction can be measured, the true cost of hunger is the loss of human lives.  925 million people today are struggling to find a source of food. 925 million people are starving, living on far less than the recommended 1800 kcal per day, while Americans and others in developed countries suffer from obesity and enjoy an average of 2700 calories per day (Shapouri and Rosen, 2010).  This paradox, which is only expected to widen if no action is taken, is simply unacceptable. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food…” (General Assembly of the United Nations, 1948). The developed world has an obligation to help the hundreds of millions who live today with chronic hunger and to prevent such a tragedy in future generations.

Furthermore, by working towards a world with less hunger, less poverty, and less corruption, international relationships will be strengthened. To have many nations on common footing, with developed economies and healthy growth and where people enjoy the same basic human rights will lead to amity, cooperation, and further growth. Increased common ground means not only more economic and social cooperation, but also better security agreements and fewer conflicts.

To make way for a new era of global cooperation and progress in all areas, including political, economic, and scientific, and, most importantly, humanitarian, now is the time to act. Our problem and solution pages deal with the nuances of policy and the specifics of solving the global hunger crisis. We address the key issues associated with food production and distribution by:

  • Increasing agricultural yields in a sustainable fashion: Simple adaptations to farming practices should be able to substantially reduce the impact of climate change: “small-scale adaptations” could reduce it to 5-50%, and “substantial adaptations” could reduce it to 5%. (Parry, et. al. 2009) In addition, sustainable practices will decrease the rate of degradation of farmland, and better crop varieties will make it possible to grow more food on less land.
  • Tackling political problems: A more pragmatic approach to aid can encourage government responsibility and accountability, ensuring that more of the aid gets where it is intended to go and has a positive effect.
  • Bringing down economic barriers, promoting education, and reducing poverty: Increased equity and empowerment of the world’s poor will break the poverty-hunger cycle, allowing more of the world’ population to have access to food. OECD and FAO (2010) state that “with expanding middle class, food consumption in [developing countries] should become less responsive to price and income changes, as is currently the case in OECD (developed nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries” (pp. 2).  With education and other solutions targeted at combating poverty, fewer people will be forced to live on less than a dollar a day, allowing the expansion of a middle class.  When this is accomplished, the lives of more than 969 million people in developing countries will no longer experience drastic change with each fluctuation in food prices.  As of 2008, 907 million out of 923 million of people who were hungry, approximately 98.3%, lived in developing countries (IFPRI, et al., 2008). As poverty and hunger are interlinked, the decline in the poverty rate will consequently result in a decline in the hunger rate, since more people will be able to purchase the adequate nutrition they need.
  • Ensuring equitable and economically viable distribution: While there is an aggregate surplus of food in the world (Leathers, 2009), too much of this food is not reaching those who need it most.

925 million people too many are hungry today (IFPRI, 2010). The world has the food, the technology, and the resources to combat this problem now.  The world has the power to prevent 195 million children from suffering due to undernourishment and to ensure that future generations do not succumb to the same fate (IFPRI, 2010).  Although human lives should not be placed in the context of monetary value, fighting hunger now has the potential to save $450 billion dollars a year (ActionAid, 2010), while increasing the GDP for developing countries and yielding returns on investments. Nevertheless, the true reward will come from improving the lives of 925 million human beings by ensuring their basic human right to food.

Works cited: 

OECD and FAO. (2010). Agricultural-Outlook 2010-2019. Retrieved December 1, 2010, from

Parry, Martin, Alex Evans, Mark W. Rosegrant and Tim Wheeler. (2009) Climate change and hunger: Responding to the Challenge. World Food Programme.

IFPRI, et al. (2008). The Challenge of Hunger 2008.  Washington, DC, IFPRI. Retrieved December 1, 2010, from

Action Aid. (2010). Who's Really Fighting Hunger? Johannesburg, South Africa: Action Aid. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from

Shapouri, Shahla and Stacey Rosen. (2009). World Population and Food Availabilty. In W. Pond, D.L. Brown, & B.L. Nichols (Eds.), Adequate Food for All (pp. 361-378). New York: CRC Press.

Leathers, H., & Foster, P. (2009). The world food problem: toward ending undernutrition in the third world. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

General Assembly of the United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved December 1, 2010, from