Food, Hunger, Science, and Data

Deven Desai

Deven Desai is an associate professor of law and ethics at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also the first, and to date, only Academic Research Counsel at Google, Inc., and a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and the Yale Law School. Professor Desai’s scholarship examines how business interests, new technology, and economic theories shape privacy and intellectual property law and where those arguments explain productivity or where they fail to capture society’s interest in the free flow of information and development. His work has appeared in leading law reviews and journals including the Georgetown Law Journal, Minnesota Law Review, Notre Dame Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, and U.C. Davis Law Review.

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2 Responses

  1. But Deven,

    Dreze and Sen showed conclusively in 1989 (and Sen began to document it as early as the late 1970s, resulting in 1983’s Poverty and Famine) that far and away the largest determinants of famine are social and political conditions, including and especially governance structures. That is, they documented how neighboring regions and communities with almost identical “natural” challenges (i.e., climate, drought, etc.) had widely divergent experiences with food insecurity and famine largely because of different governance and political structures. Very crudely speaking, the more totalitarian the state entity, the more likely that mass starvation would ensue.

    Perhaps more radically, Vicente Navarro has observed that while the primary public health challenge across the globe is hunger, we have the capacity to feed every man, woman, and child on the globe many times over. Navarro argues — I think persuasively — that the primary culprit in our global failures are products of deeply inequitable international political economies (which necessarily include histories of oppression and colonialism), which determine deprivation, disease and death both across the international political order and within individual nation-states. (Pogge writes quite a bit on this as well).

    Given all of this literature, I have to say that I am quite dubious at the somewhat scientistic notion that we are going to resolve these essentially sociopolitical problems of hunger by having better food science. This is not to say that I am opposed to such, but rather than our top priority from a public health perspective ought to be reforming the social and political variables and inequalities that the evidence strongly suggests are the prime determinants of food insecurity and hunger in both the global North and the global South.

    Sridhar Venkatapuram writes a great deal about Dreze and Sen’s famine-entitlement analysis in his new book on Health Justice, and I agree with him entirely that those of us working on population health issues and global health policy would do well to delve deeply into that analysis. These are political problems that must be resolved politically, or not at all.


  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    In addition to the points raised by Daniel, there are many other issues that are ignored here, among them:

    (i) the impact of IP rights (the vast majority of which are foreign-owned) in genetically-modified (GM) seed on farmers, who no longer can retain seed

    (ii) the ethics of the strong-arm diplomacy of the IP-owning countries, who are demanding “TRIPS-plus” protections in their bilateral trade agreements with poorer countries at the behest of the GM seed owners

    (iii) the additional inputs that may be necessary for the use of GM seed, esp. because the particular strains and/or the reduced genetic diversity (monoculture) aren’t necessarily suitable for many environments

    (iv) the “structural reform” policies pushed by IMF, World Bank et al., which favor policies for food export (even, BTW, in developed countries like Japan, which already scores woefully low in dietary self-sufficiency)

    (v) the implicit assertion that what may be true for cotton is extensible by analogy to other GM crops, when in fact the impacts can vary widely case-by-case; and

    (vi) the cultural impact within the affected countries of a shift from local varieties and traditions to an industrialized seed affected by factors (i)-(v) above. (It’s not only the GM aspect but also the industrialized aspect that’s at issue here; again, this is pertinent even in “advanced” countries like Japan, where agriculture still is a significant element of national identity.)

    Seems compelling to me, at least in many cases; but not in the same way as the post suggests.