April 29-May 1, 2004

The conception of hunger as a soluble problem is a modern phenomenon, as are certain aspects of its global severity. Hunger was once an isolated occurrence, in which a crop failed in a single area, thus confining the devastation. But with the integration of food markets in the modern period, famines could now devastate entire regions, the result of inadequate distribution rather than simple scarcity. The problem of hunger can be approached from several different areas. While scientists study the influence of climate on episodes of scarcity, offering the possibility of improving crop yield through biological modification, economists focus on problems of access to food, hoping to blunt the effects of periodic scarcity through improved methods of distribution. Some political scientists debate which governmental structures are best suited to prevent instances of catastrophic hunger, while others investigate the implications of food aid to developing nations. There is no consensus about the best way to approach the problem of hunger, nor of its significance, more generally, as a historical phenomenon. We believe that our customary interdisciplinary approach is well suited to topics of this sort.

Many economists maintain that hunger is a symptom of uneven economic development, diagnosing the prevalence of hunger in developing nations as an unfortunate side-effect of poorly-managed growth. Some scholars point out that while nations, such as the U.S., produce far more food than they need, other nations are unable to feed themselves. Their research sites policies of food production with distribution as the cause of hunger. This research claims that particular economic policies, especially those related to agricultural subsidies, result in the overproduction of specific crops that, counter intuitively, are not used to address food shortages.

Scientists who study food shortages focus on the possibility of biotechnological solutions, identifying the problem as one of underproduction. Drought-resistant crop strains could mitigate catastrophic famine, while higher-yield crops could increase food productivity. Those nations in need of food, however, rarely have the scientific resources to avail themselves of these biotechnological solutions. Further the environmental impact of bio-engineered foods remains a concern for these scientists.

Our seminar will open with the following questions: Is hunger to be managed through crop manipulation, through changing policies of food distribution, or through focused strategies of economic development? To what extent is hunger in fact a soluble problem, and to what extent is it the consequence of inescapable variables such as weather, climate, and population? What does the problem of hunger teach us about interrelationships between science and public policy, between environmental stewardship and human well-being?

We will explore several possible approaches to world hunger, drawing on the expertise of scholars in economics, geophysics, political science and biology. Speakers will include Meredith Cumings, Sean Durkin, Gidon Eshel, Emilio Kouri, Jocelyn Malamy and Laurens Mets.

Pre-readings