From Fome Zero to Zero Hunger

This text is part of the introduction of the book “From Zero to Zero Hunger – A global perspective”, launched on 31 July 2019.

For millennia, the lives of people, communities and civilizations have been marked by a permanent threat. That threat is hunger, a scourge that leads to weakness, desperation and, in the most extreme cases, death. Escaping hunger has been one of the main common threads throughout history causing large-scale migration, wars, conflicts and enormous sacrifices. But it has also given rise to unexpected alliances and served to sharpen human ingenuity and consolidate solidarity and fellowship between communities. 

As a result of that ingenuity, that solidarity and the human inclination to escape the shackles of need, the second half of the twentieth century saw a significant increase in food production.

Although that increase took – and still takes – a considerable toll on the planet’s natural resources, it helped to keep pace with population growth and to reduce the episodes of famine that periodically plagued much of the world. It has now been several decades since our incapacity to produce enough food for all stopped being the reason why hundreds of millions of people are not eating enough for a decent and full life.

Today, on the contrary, we produce more than enough food for the entire global population and even waste enormous amounts each year. If, at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, over 821 million people are trapped in the vicious circle of hunger, this is primarily due to a lack of political will to eliminate its root causes.

If it has been done before, it can be done again 

Recent history provides us with examples that if we want to get something done, then it can be done.  Such examples include the rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War and the more recent case of Brazil. At the dawn of this century, in 2000, more than 11 in every 100 Brazilians were not eating enough.

As was the case in dozens of other countries, millions of people in Brazil were trapped in an endless spiral of hunger, poverty and lack of opportunities that was repeated generation after generation. At that time, right at the turn of the century, the United Nations members set certain targets in order to achieve a fairer and more decent world by 2015.

The aim of the Millennium Development Goals was that by 2015 all nations on the planet would reduce the percentage of hungry people among their inhabitants by half with respect to 1990. But in Brazil, as of 2003, the Government decided to be even more ambitious. Reducing hunger was not enough. It had to be eliminated. “Fome Zero” (Zero Hunger) was the motto chosen, and even became the name of a ministry dedicated specifically to the task.

In order for expressions of goodwill to have meaning, they must be followed by effective decisions and programmes. And that effectiveness requires funding. One of the characteristics of the Brazilian case is that the executive’s political commitment led to plans and investments aimed specifically at rescuing millions of people from hunger and poverty. The economy was growing fast and the country decided to include the hungry in its budgets and to share that increasing wealth with them. The plan prepared by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s executive focused on breaking the vicious cycle and turning it into a virtuous circle, where food production, the country’s macroeconomic policy and social protection systems and programmes would be coordinated and would feed back into each other. For instance, the Brazilian State started to provide nutritious school lunches for children from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

As well as improving their diet, this encouraged them to attend class. Moreover, the food was bought from small-scale farmers in vulnerable situations and therefore many excluded families could access a source of income that allowed them to improve their circumstances and develop their businesses. This system was complemented with other policy initiatives, including credit subsidies, capacity development activities and subsidies and grants programs, adding up to 30 different measures contained in different social and developmental programmes. 

A global commitment

Since then, the Zero Hunger Programme (developed by economist and agronomist José Graziano da Silva, then Special Minister for Food Security in Brazil and current FAO Director-General) has been considered one of the major successes of hunger and poverty reduction at the international level and has become a model that is replicated in some of its components and adapted by countries aiming to follow in the same direction.

By 2015, the world in general had made considerable progress: in 1990, 23.3 percent of the planet’s inhabitants were not eating enough; 25 years later, that number had dropped to 12.9 percent. Seventy-two countries (from Bolivia (the Plurinational State of) to Nepal and from Mozambique to Uzbekistan) managed to reduce hunger by half on time.

However, the overall objective was not achieved and in 2015 there were still 780 million hungry people in the world. Brazil, for its part, took less than a decade to join the ranks of “hunger-free” countries. The country reached Zero Hunger in just a few years as a result of its political commitment, reflected in effective investments and programmes.

In fact, Latin America was a pioneer in taking on this challenge and is the region that has made the most progress in terms of hunger and poverty reduction since the start of the twenty-first century. At the end of the 1990s, there were 66 million people (14.7 percent of the region’s population) suffering from hunger and without access to the food needed for a healthy life. In a decade and a half, that percentage dropped to five percent and the number of people affected decreased by 34 million (bearing in mind, moreover, that in that period the population increased by some 130 million).

The region’s success story is the result of the countries’ top-level political commitment in a context of macroeconomic and political stability that facilitated greater public spending on social programmes aimed at the most vulnerable in society, although progress has been slowing down in recent years. Inspired and impressed by advances in the fight against hunger, then United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, made an appeal to world leaders and to all actors from both civil society and the private sector during the 2012 Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. That appeal, known as the Zero Hunger Challenge and supported by the entire United Nations system, asked countries to redouble their efforts to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth once and for all.

Subsequently, numerous initiatives under the umbrella of Zero Hunger were launched in Asia and the Pacific in 2013. African Heads of State also joined the initiative in 2014 by adopting the Malabo Declaration, which determined to put an end to hunger on the continent by 2025. Lastly, the entire international community took on the global target of Zero Hunger by 2030 when it was included as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 2) in the ambitious agenda adopted by all world leaders at the United Nations headquarters in 2015. 

However, implementation of the SDGs has so far failed to produce positive results. In 2016, hunger increased for the first time after over a decade of decline and reached 821 million people in 2018. According to most experts, the combination of conflicts and climate disasters is behind this increase. 

This upward trend should serve as a warning that things need to change if we really want to eliminate all forms of malnutrition by 2030. Recognizing the right of all people to adequate food, as an increasing number of countries are doing (above all thanks to parliamentary alliances between different political groups united against hunger), is a step in the right direction, but declarations alone are not enough.

It is still possible

FAO insists that we still have time to achieve SDG 2, but that this will require strengthening global commitment (and investments) and preventing hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition from losing relevance on the global agenda to other emerging issues, such as migration or climate change, also because they are related. No plan for ending poverty and hunger will be worth the paper it’s written on if it lacks the funding (which demonstrates real commitment) to be put into practice. In this regard, investments from traditional development actors (cooperation from developed countries or organizations such as the World Bank) will not be enough.

Developing countries must be capable of mobilizing more resources and the involvement of the private sector will probably have to go beyond small corporate social responsibility projects. However, even in places with political will, specific programmes to fight against hunger and money to implement them, there are cases where progress is not visible or advances are too slow. This requires an analysis of what is going wrong: where are the bottlenecks that are undermining the effectiveness of the efforts made and which efforts are indeed yielding results?

There is little use, for example, in investing in improving the capacity of vulnerable coastal communities to fish and to process fish if there is no fight against the illegal fishing that is decimating stocks and, therefore, the number of potential catches among these communities. Nor is it very effective to allocate funds to supporting family farmers if women (and the households they sustain) are excluded from those programmes for legal or cultural reasons.

In some cases, such as the Horn of Africa or the Dry Corridor of Central America, a focus is needed on generating resilience among those who live off agriculture and livestock farming in the context of an increasingly unpredictable climate. In others, such as West Africa, an enabling environment is needed to develop the agro-industry and create opportunities and jobs for a growing population. In addition, in places such as the small islands states of the Pacific or the Caribbean, the economic impact of the population’s dependency on food imports will need to be mitigated.

The recipe for Zero Hunger must be specific to each territory and its circumstances. However, the example of Brazil reveals a necessary ingredient for any recipe to work: the adoption of measures to make food systems inclusive and sustainable not only in environmental terms, but also from the social and economic point of view. As long as food systems (with all their elements and actors from seed to table), urban systems and transport systems are geared solely towards economic growth and profit, it will be hard to advance towards the achievement of SDG 2 (or practically any of the others). Constant urbanization, population growth, climate change, the deterioration of natural resources, biodiversity and micro-biodiversity, irregular allocation of budget to social policies and the emergence of disruptive technologies present both obstacles and opportunities in the fight against hunger. 

The key to success, as shown in different examples around the world, from post-war Europe to Brazil in the 2000s and including other places that have experienced progress, such as Ethiopia or Bangladesh, requires placing the hungry and the poor centre stage and ensuring that they too enjoy the fruits of economic growth. While the criteria of inclusion, efficiency, equity and sustainability are being incorporated into economic activity (particularly in food systems), we need to invest words, actions, laws, programmes and resources to free humanity from this age-old scourge, which today comes in many guises, including undernutrition, obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. Brazil reached Fome Zero in one decade. Eliminating hunger is not a technical matter or one linked to food production. It is a matter of will. Zero Hunger is still possible.

From Fome Zero to Zero Hunger: a global perspective

It is in this perspective that this publication addresses the dynamics and hopes underlying the transformation of a national project to eradicate hunger, the Brazilian Fome Zero strategy, into the international challenge of achieving Zero Hunger in 2030. It does so by echoing a first book by Graziano da Silva et al. (2013) that looked at the evolution of Brazilian Fome Zero Program, critically assessing its beginnings, its implementation and the results achieved. In a range of articles, the publication aimed to share the design and reach of the program, but also to analyse its main technical and political features.  

In fact, Brazil stood out internationally these two last decades for its impressive achievements in terms of socio-economic development. Among the country’s greatest accomplishment is the eradication of hunger, formally recognized in 2014 when Brazil was removed from the UN World Hunger Map.  It is also estimated that 39,5 million people were lifted out of poverty between 2003 and 2016, while the Gini coefficient fell from 58.1 to 51.5 and the revenues of the poorest 40% grew 7.1% in real terms.

‘From Fome Zero to Zero Hunger: a global perspective’ seeks to contribute to recent international efforts to promote a comprehensive approach that addresses the different and interrelated causes of hunger and malnutrition. Considering that the number of hungry people is still growing, it is critical to review recent global initiatives in the fight against hunger and poverty in order to renew perspectives, strengthen actors’ technical expertise and political capacity to engage with this agenda, and promote a sustained commitment to achieve Zero Hunger. Hence, building on the previous publication on ‘Zero Hunger – A Brazilian Experience’, this new book gathers a diversity of experiences, approaches and visions that helped advance zero hunger as a global development goal. In doing so, it highlights successful contributions to meeting this agenda, while critically assessing current and future challenges and proposing new ways forward. In this regard, the publication’s main goal is to provide useful inputs and concrete evidence for policymakers, governments, experts and members of the academia to support the debate, design and implementation of effective zero hunger policies. 

Persistent and new adversities triggered by conflicts, economic crisis and climate change call for continued political commitment and effective action to fight hunger. Strengthening this commitment at all levels and implicating all relevant stakeholders is key to end a scourge that can no longer undermine people’s right to a dignified, healthy and productive life. The present publications aims to contribute to this agenda by sharing past and present experiences and lessons of the Zero Hunger agenda and by shedding light on current obstacles and future challenges.