Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


tech-hunger

(PHOTO: PAVEL IGNATOV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Technology Won’t Solve Hunger

• September 09, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: PAVEL IGNATOV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

But that doesn’t mean that it can’t help.

Technology will cure hunger, say people who create technology.

In his “silicon gospel” (as it’s described by the Los Angeles Review of Books), Byron Reese considers agricultural technologies like genetic engineering and automated farms as the way to feed every starving mouth. The idea that increased food production—made possible by new inventions and genetically modified crops—will solve hunger isn’t necessarily a unique one. CropLife America, a U.S. trade association, uses this argument when advocating their clients: Food production capacity is endangered by an ever growing population. So, a faction of the tech world’s solution is as follows: We need more food. And the only way to grow more food is better technology.

Except, no.

The USDA says that our food waste is equal to 30 or 40 percent of the national food supply.

In a 2012 paper, Rebecca Bratspies, of the CUNY School of Law, makes the case that increased food production is not the way to resolve food insecurity. Rather, the problem comes from food distribution. For the past decade, she says, food production has increased faster than population growth. Yet, in the past 35 years, the number of people experiencing food insecurity has nearly doubled: 500 million experienced hunger in 1975; by 2010, it was 925 million. Food production doesn’t alleviate poverty, Bratspies argues; it’s a “social commitment to an equitable distribution of food” that will actually help those suffering.

In the U.S., nearly 49 million people live in food-insecure households. However, the USDA says that our food waste is equal to 30 or 40 percent of the national food supply. That’s 36 million tons of food uneaten, food that the National Resource Defense Council says “eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows up 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States.” Reducing food losses by 15 percent, the NRDC continues, would be enough to food to feed at least 25 million people experiencing food insecurity.

The issue, then: In 2008, the amount of uneaten food in homes and restaurants was valued at $398 per U.S. consumer. But in 2011, the federal program SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) allocated a monthly $281 to the average household within the system. Something’s off.

SO WHAT IF TECHNOLOGY focused on distribution, rather than production? Code for America, a tech-based non-profit, is hoping to find out.

I recently emailed with some of Code for America’s San Mateo County Fellows about their projects that deal with hunger issues. They’re currently working on an interface that will aggregate different community data sources together: a guide for food stamps eligibility, an overview of the CalFresh program, and information on other non-governmental programs to help those who aren’t eligible to enroll in federal programs. The last point is specifically important to the fellows: In San Mateo county, the high cost of living means a family of three needs roughly $85,000 to get by without assistance. But to be eligible for Calfresh (the Californian branch of SNAP) a family of three has to make less than $24,828 per year.

As opposed to the impractical idealism of other techno-hunger-cures, the project is focused on social services workers who can use the information when speaking to clients, acting as an intermediary for those without access to technology themselves. (Currently, case workers reference an out-of-date print guide.) They’re also working on an SMS-based interface which would provide the information via text message; SMS-capable phones, they argue, are still accessible in food-insecure communities.

Lack of information about food assistance programs is a big issue in the U.S. The Urban Institute says that in 2008, families with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line were likely to leave the program specifically because of administrative hassles. According to the USDA, “If the national participation rate [in food assistance programs] rose 5 percentage points, 1.9 million more low-income people would have an additional $1.3 billion in benefits per year to use to purchase healthy food and $2.5 billion total in new economic activity would be generated nationwide.”

Technology won’t cure hunger—but applied in the right way, it could certainly help. One thing’s for sure: Throwing out $165 billion worth of hyper-produced technologically aided food isn’t helping anyone.

Sarah Sloat
Sarah Sloat is an editorial fellow with Pacific Standard. She was previously selected as an intern for the Sara Miller McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program and has studied abroad in both Argentina and the U.K. Sarah has recently graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara with a degree in Global and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @sarahshmee.

More From Sarah Sloat

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.