Daily wage laborers who lost work opportunities during the Covid-19 lockdown queue to receive free meals distributed by volunteers in Siliguri, India, on June 19. (Photo: AFP)
It is not without reason that Pope Francis described hunger, which is rising unabated after years of decline, as “a crime that violates basic human rights.” Food insecurity often triggers unrest and kills peace among people.
Some 811 million of the world’s 7.9 billion people go to bed on an empty stomach almost every day. Women are more likely than men to go hungry. Asia has the dubious distinction of housing more than half of them.
The cause of hunger in Asia is not lack of food but lack of political and economic resources to access food for the needy.
For example, India, despite a robust economy and record food production, is ranked 101 in the Global Hunger Index of 2021, released last week. The poor ranking comes despite India being the second-largest economy in Asia after China.
India’s hunger has been increasing and it slipped down from last year’s 94th position. It is now trailing behind its neighbors like Nepal (76), Bangladesh (76), Myanmar (71) and Pakistan (92), who are all in the "alarming" hunger category.
South Asia houses a large chunk of the world’s hungry people (305.7 million) followed by Southeast Asia (48.8 million) and West Asia (42.3 million), according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report of 2021.
The primary problem leading to growing hunger in Asia is the loss of employment, especially among low-wage migrant workers
The Feb. 1 military coup triggered hunger in Myanmar, leaving it to grapple with both the pandemic and political turmoil.
In North Korea, it is the “worst-ever situation” due to severe floods, UN sanctions and withholding of aid by China because of border closures due to pandemic curbs.
Over 20 million Filipinos — or one in five people — said they faced hunger in the first three months of 2021.
The poverty rate in Malaysia worsened considerably after repeated lockdowns that hit the income streams of informal workers.
The pandemic pushed 800,000 more Thai people into poverty in 2020, found a study by the Thailand Science Research and Innovation.
Hunger in Asia was not caused by a drop in food production and inadequate food supplies. None of the major food-exporting Asian countries has seen a fall in production. India, for example, witnessed record harvests of food grains in 2020 and 2021.
The primary problem leading to growing hunger in Asia is the loss of employment, especially among low-wage migrant workers. As a misery multiplier, the Covid-19 pandemic has added to the woes and wreaked havoc on the economies of many Asian countries.
Despite the papal call to mitigate hunger, considering it a crime against humanity, the hierarchy in Asia seems to be clueless on how to address the issue.
Even if the pope's call is construed as addressed to governments of the world and not to churches to act upon, we do not see national churches working to make the call audible to their governments and the people.
In his message on World Food Day, Pope Francis underlined the need to ensure maximum environmental sustainability while producing “adequate and affordable” food.
The message was addressed to Qu Dongyu, director-general of the FAO, and warned against the tendency to put profit before people, saying the “fight against hunger requires overcoming the cold logic of the market.”
However, Pope Francis assured the FAO of the full support of the Holy See and the Catholic Church to strengthen “the logic of solidarity” in the world’s food system. The logic of solidarity, as commonly understood, refers to the social ties that bind people together as one.
It affirms that whatever ills are afflicting part of the human family affects the whole, and the welfare of the whole depends on the well-being of all parts. The logic of solidarity is not something that government initiatives can implement.
The hunger crisis in Asia is also the result of skewed national priorities, particularly when nations like India waste thousands of tons of grains every year
It depends on creating social consciousness about the issues that adversely affect a section of people with a sense of urgency as if it affects and deteriorates the whole society. The local churches do have a role here to play.
The pope’s message said: “We must encourage producers and consumers to make ethical and sustainable choices.” It is not an exhortation to governments to act but a call to each member of the Church, which the local hierarchies are to take seriously and chalk out plans to implement.
Hunger is not an issue that can be tackled by distributing food packets. Its roots rest in criminal negligence of the fundamental rights of every human to have food. Besides governments’ lack of a system to distribute food grains, corruption, hoarding, exploitation, market manipulations and poverty block poor people from accessing food.
The hunger crisis in Asia is also the result of skewed national priorities, particularly when nations like India waste thousands of tons of grains every year for want of proper storage space and a distribution network.
The effort to end food waste on the continent will take a radical shift because food is the result of other natural resources like water and fuel. About one third of all food produced (over 1.3 billion tons) is wasted worldwide.
Acting on the call by Pope Francis, the Asian Church has to chalk out long-term plans to make agriculture environmentally sustainable and to make food adequate and affordable to all. Lest we forget, the majority of Asian Catholics depend on farming for their living.
“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” to lift the Asians from the sorry predicament brought on them by lopsided government policies and a profit-hungry market. It is time the Asian Church considered farming as its new mission field.
Hungry humans have no religion and morality. If hunger is not addressed, religions will be rendered meaningless.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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