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 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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