The world's biggest problem: Our hungry planet

BOSTON — Economics is often called — only half-jokingly — the dismal science.

As anyone who's struggled to grasp concepts like agency costs, horizontal equity or the Laffer curve knows, the science can be pretty dismal.

That's especially true when considering the economic aspects of global hunger, where the news is bad and getting worse.

According to the United Nations the number of hungry people this year reached 1.02 billion. That's one in six human beings. Moreover, that figure has been growing each year for more than a decade, while the ravages of the global economic crisis are making matters worse in nearly every corner of the world.

So what's the root of the problem? There are many, of course — endemic poverty, conflict, climate change, bad governance and on and on. But according to the U.N.'s chief food honcho Jacques Diouf, the biggest factor is an economic one: under-investment in agriculture and rural development.

"If people go hungry today it is not because the world is not producing enough food but because it is not produced in the countries where 70 percent of the world's poor live and whose livelihoods depend on farming activities," Diouf said at a U.N. food conference in Geneva. "The challenge is not only to ensure food security for the one billion hungry people today, which is certainly an enormous task, but also to be able to feed a world population that is expected to reach 9.1 billion in 2050," he said.

So what can the dismal science do?

At its heart economics is about finding the most efficient allocation of resources — money, time, capital equipment, employees and all the other complex and interrelated factors that go into providing everything from Boeing airplanes, to Maytag washing machines, to Chinese foot massages, Xbox games, Mini Coopers and food staples like rice, potatoes and corn.

These basic economic principles apply to individual people, families, companies, aid organizations, NGOs and governments. That matters because the global hunger crisis intersects with each of these economic entities.

So the U.N. is urging for an increase in public and private investment to boost agricultural production (and productivity), particularly in poor countries where hunger has reached staggering proportions — such as Asia, where 642 million people are hungry and Sub-Saharan Africa, where 265 million are malnourished.

What's needed, then, is an economic solution: a smarter allocation of resources. And according to Diouf, investment is the place to start.

He points to studies that show GDP derived from agricultural activity is twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth that comes from other areas of an economy, like manufacturing or services.

The U.N.'s argument makes particular sense when seen against the backdrop of recent reporting on GlobalPost. We saw the worsening hunger problem first-hand this week, through the eyes of two correspondents in India — Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng. 

The two traveled to rural Haryana, where due to a perfect storm of problems small farmers are struggling to make ends meet. As they documented, these rural troubles have now spread to India's urban areas, too, where food prices are skyrocketing and more people are going hungry.