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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.

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