Addressing hunger among humanity: How Islam addresses challenges of sustainable food security

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Hafiz Yunus Omotayo, Missionary, Nigeria

A story that has continued to linger in my mind occurred over a decade ago during my time in the villages and towns situated in the east of Kogi State, Nigeria, where I was preaching the message of peace as a Muslim missionary. It was a case of a young lady who became pregnant from a premarital relationship she had with a poor man. She had no option other than to courageously bear the pregnancy through nine months of hunger and malnutrition.

The worst, however, was to happen on the day of her delivery. Although she had been lucky to have a safe and successful child delivery experience, the joy was not to last long. Just moments after the delivery, while still lying on the bed in the delivery room, her cry from the pangs of child-birth was quickly followed with the agony of hunger as she cried out in her Igala language:

“Ebi a pu’mi!” (I’m hungry!); “Me du ujeun mi agba!” (Give me food, please!).

Unfortunately, as loud as her cry of anguish vibrated, it could not draw food from the poor father of her baby, nor from their families, nor from even the people around her at the clinic. Sadly, the poor girl died.

The disturbing fact is that from the continent of Africa, to Asia, South America and the rest of the continents that lie beyond, millions of similar cases are occurring daily in a world populated by millions of starving people.

Specifically, around 9 million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases. This is more than the yearly death toll of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. A child dies from hunger every 10 seconds. Poor nutrition and hunger are responsible for the death of 3.1 million children a year. That’s nearly half of all deaths in children under the age of five. Children die because their bodies lack basic nutrients. (“How Many People Die From Hunger Each Year?”, www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/people-and-poverty/hungerand-obesity/how-many-people-die-fromhunger-each-year; Accessed 6 June 2020)

What is hunger and who falls under the category of hungry? Why are people hungry? How fatal are the effects of hunger in the world? What are the challenges of food security in the world? What approaches and measures does Islam offer mankind in a bid to address challenges of food insecurity for the hungry world? This piece sets about to examine all this.

Hunger – Meaning, causes and global fatalities

According to United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life.

Undernourishment or hunger exists when caloric intake is below the minimum dietary energy requirement (MDER). The MDER is the amount of energy needed to perform light activity and to maintain a minimum acceptable weight for attained height (FAO Statistical Yearbook 2012: Part 2, Hunger Dimensions, [PDF] FAO 2012. Accessed 8 June 2020)

In politics, humanitarian aid and social science, hunger is a condition in which a person, for a sustained period, is unable to eat sufficient food to meet basic nutritional needs. Well into the 21st century, the hunger pandemic has continued as the gravest health crisis worldwide. And there is a tendency for it to become worse, most particularly now, when the world begins to face the effects of Covid-19.

In fact, as restrictions on movement have already begun to affect the incomes of the vulnerable, disallowing food from getting to those who need it is causing millions of people globally to miss meals and snacks. Hindering the delivery of seeds and farming tools to farmers in many countries brings up the possibility that this global hunger pandemic could grow and threaten the lives of more vulnerable sections of our global human family.

Altogether, an estimated 265 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. (Global Hunger Facts, What You Need to Know, www.mercycorps.org/blog/quick-facts-global-hunger)

Earlier, about two billion people have been freed from hunger since 1990, when the United Nations set the development goal to halve the number of people suffering from hunger by 2015.

However, in 2019, the United Nations reported that after nearly ten years of progress, the past three years have seen an increase in the number of people suffering from hunger. (Ibid)

It is regrettable that, while global hunger statistics had earlier showed progress, in recent years, the positive development has stopped. Particularly, since 2015, we have seen an increase in hungry people globally every year: 2015 saw 784 million hungry people; 2016 saw 804 million; 2017 saw 821 million and 2018 saw 822 million. Globally, over 800 million people suffer from undernourishment.

The statistics of undernourished people in the world has also seen an increase: 2015 saw 10.6% of the global population; 2016 saw 10.7%; 2017 saw 10.8% and 2018 saw 10.8%. It is also important to note that of the 822 million undernourished people in the world, 113 million face acute hunger, meaning they are in urgent need of food and nutrients. (“How Many People Die From Hunger Each Year?”, www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/peopleand-poverty/hunger-and-obesity/how-manypeople-die-from-hunger-each-year)

Furthermore, in Nigeria, 27% of families experience foodless days. In India, it is 24%; in Peru, 14% (www.theglobalist.com/globalfood-security-10-challenges).

One in every nine people goes to bed hungry each night, including 20 million people currently at risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. 98% of the world’s hungry population live in developing regions. The highest number of malnourished people, 520 million, lives in Asia and the Pacific, in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 243 million people face hunger in arid countries like Ethiopia, Niger and Mali, while millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are struggling to find enough to eat, in places like Guatemala and Haiti. (Global Hunger Facts, What You Need to Know, www. mercycorps.org/blog/quick-facts-globalhunger)

“Even in England and the United States of America”, observes Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, “There are hundreds of thousands of people without shelter and those who have to dip into dustbins to find some scrap of food to satiate their hunger.” (Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, Islam International Publications Ltd., UK [1997], p.211)

Hunger is a perilous cycle that passes from one generation to the next. Families who struggle with chronic hunger and malnutrition consistently go without the nutrients their minds and bodies need, which then prevents them from being able to perform their best at work, school or to improve their lives.

People suffering from chronic hunger are plagued with recurring illnesses, developmental disabilities and low productivity. They are often forced to use all their limited physical and financial resources just to put food on the table. (Ibid)

Challenges of food security

Why are millions of people finding it difficult to secure food to eat and beat both the “apparent” and “hidden” types of hunger – starvation and malnutrition? The straightforward answers are, as many food experts would maintain, in the hungriest countries, families struggle to get the food they need because of several issues; lack of infrastructure, frequent war and displacement, natural disasters, climate change, chronic poverty and lack of purchasing power. More so, there is the challenge of food wastage.

In fact, up to one-third of the food produced around the world is never consumed. Some of the factors responsible for food losses include inefficient farming techniques, lack of post-harvest storage, management resources and broken or inefficient supply chains. (Ibid)

Furthermore, bad governance and inaccessibility of food also constitute some of the challenges. Furthermore, people living in poverty – earning less than 1.25 USD per day – struggle to afford safe, nutritious food to feed themselves and their families. As they grow hungrier, they become weak, prone to illness and less productive, making it difficult to work.

If they are farmers, they can’t afford the tools, seeds and fertilisers they need to increase their production, let alone have the strength to perform laborious work. The limited income also means they often cannot afford to send their children to school or they pull them out to work to help support the family.

Even if children are lucky enough to go to classes, their malnourishment prevents them from learning to their fullest. (Ibid)

How Islam addresses the challenges of food security

As a global religion of life, Islam recognises the necessity of sustainable food security for all mankind to enable them to eat and live healthily, actively and productively. In this context, Islam offers the following approaches and measures towards ensuring that humanity secures food, particularly, for the most vulnerable – the needy and poor.

Assurance of the earth’s capability of maximum food for humanity

The world’s population is projected to rise to around 10 billion by 2050 – up from more than 7.5 billion today. That means there will be over 2 billion more people who need food by 2050. Making sure that there is enough for everyone to eat will be an increasing concern as the population multiplies. (Ibid)

However, regarding the above concern, the Quranic declaration of the earth’s capability to afford maximum food for humanity is preeminently reassuring. Allah says:

“He placed therein firm mountains rising above its surface, and blessed it with abundance, and provided therein its food in proper measure in four days – alike for all seekers.” (Surah Ha Mim al-Sajdah, Ch.41: V.11)

Commenting on the above verse in the Quranic exegesis, the Five-Volume Commentary expounds:

“The words, ‘Provided its food in proper measure’ signify that the earth is fully capable of providing food for all the creatures that live on it. The expression, ‘Alike for all seekers’ may signify that the foods that God has provided in the earth are equally accessible to all seekers who try to get them according to the laws of nature. It may also mean that all the physical needs and requirements of man have been adequately met in the foods that grow out of the earth. So the fear that the earth may not someday be able to grow sufficient food for the fast increasing population of the world is groundless.” (Five-Volume Commentary of the Holy Quran, Vol. 4, pp. 2322-2323)

The extract concludes with a quote from Professor Colin Clark, Director of the Agriculture Economics Research Institute of Oxford University, who forecasted, “The world can provide food, fibre and all other agricultural requirements for 28 billion people.”

Our earth can feed 28 billion people! This reassurance is further accentuated when read in light of the following expert projection documented in a journal article titled, “How many people can the earth feed”:

“A combination of improved agronomic practices (above all, higher efficiencies of fertiliser and water use), lowered post-harvest waste and healthier eating (mainly reduction of fat intake) could provide adequate nutrition for an additional three billion people without any increase in existing inputs. Furthermore, realistic mobilisation of new productive inputs could secure enough food for yet another two billion people. Consequently, there appear to be no insurmountable obstacles to feeding the global population of about ten billion people expected by the end of the middle of the twenty-first century.” (How many people can the earth feed? on JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2137520?seq=1, Accessed 8 June 2020)

Various governments must continue to devise mechanisms to reduce food loss and waste. In a food research article published by World Resources Institute, the writers maintained that approximately one-quarter of food produced for human consumption goes uneaten. Loss and waste occurs all along the food chain, from field to fork. Reducing food loss and waste by 25% by 2050 would close the food gap by 12%, the land gap by 27% and the GHG mitigation gap by 15%.

Actions to take include measuring food waste, setting reduction targets, improving food storage in developing countries and streamlining expiration labels. (How to sustainably feed 10 billion people by 2050, in 21 Charts, World Resources Institute, www.wri.org/blog/2018/12/how-sustainably-feed10-billion-people-2050-21-charts)

Declaration of the four basic amenities

The Holy Quran declares:

“It is provided for thee that thou wilt not hunger therein, nor wilt thou be naked. And that thou wilt not thirst therein, nor wilt thou be exposed to the sun.” (Surah Ta Ha, Ch.20: V.119-120)

In Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh noted:

“Islam establishes minimum rights in the form of four-point charter by defining the basic needs which a state should procure: Food, clothing, water and shelter … Governments have both national and international responsibilities. These responsibilities on the national level are to fulfil the basic needs of each member of society by ensuring that all are fed adequately, clothed and provided with water and shelter. The international duty … is to fully participate in pooling resources to meet the challenges of wide-scale natural disasters or man-made calamities and to help such countries as are by themselves incapable of appropriately handling the crisis. As such, it is the duty of the state to set the matters aright by transferring back to the beggars and poor people what truly belongs to them. So the four fundamental requirements of food, clothing, water, and shelter, will have preference over all other considerations.” (Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, pp. 212-213)

It should be noted that many hungry people live in countries with food surpluses, not food shortages. The issue, largely, is that the people who need food the most simply don’t have steady access to it (Global Hunger Facts, What You Need to Know, www.mercycorps.org/blog/quickfacts-global-hunger).

In this context, it is therefore the responsibility of governments to put in place social security, infrastructure and system that would facilitate food accessibility, particularly, for the poverty-stricken citizens.

Prescription of feeding of the poor as a means of expiation

Perhaps, among world religions, Islam has the distinction of adopting the prescription of feeding of the poor as a means of expiation of omissions and commissions by Muslims.

For example, the penalty for breaking of an oath is feeding of ten poor persons with such average food as they feed their families (Surah al-Maidah, Ch.5: V.90).

Similarly, a Muslim who is guilty of intentionally killing game in a state of pilgrimage faces the penalty of feeding a number of poor persons as expiation (Surah al-Maidah, Ch.5: V.96).

More so, while observing the fasts of Ramadan is compulsory, it is prescribed upon those who have no capacity to fast to feed the poor for the 30 days of fasts (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.185).

Furthermore, a Muslim found guilty of zihar (the pagan custom of calling one’s wife “mother” with a view to cease conjugal relations with her) will have to expiate by feeding 60 poor persons (Surah al-Mujadalah, Ch.58: V.5).

All this is calculated to alleviate the challenge of hunger of the downtrodden in the society.

Institutionalisation of capital levy (Zakat)

To help work towards achieving a sustainable social security for the vulnerable sections of the society, which will, in turn, increase their purchasing power and consequently, facilitate their food security, Islam mandates payment of poor alms by the haves to cater for the haves-not (Surah al-Nur, Ch.24: V.57).

The beneficiaries of this provision are also clearly stated:

“The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and for those employed in connection therewith, and for those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and for the freeing of slaves, and for those in debt, and for the cause of Allah, and for the wayfarer – an ordinance from Allah. And Allah is All-knowing, Wise.” (Surah at-Taubah, Ch.9: V.60)

General exhortations on feeding of the poor

The Holy Quran emphatically declares that anyone, particularly a Muslim, who neglects or does not urge the feeding of the poor has rejected or denied the essence of religion:

“Hast thou seen him who rejects religion? That is the one who drives away the orphan, and urges not the feeding of the poor” (Surah al-Ma‘un, Ch.107: V.2-4).

The Holy Quran exhorts uplifting of the poor as a necessity for national progress and censures every well-to-do that refuses to channel his wealth towards this path of material and spiritual progress:

“And We have pointed out to him the two highways of good and evil. But he attempted not the ascent courageously. And what should make thee know what the ascent is? It is the freeing of a slave. Or feeding in a day of hunger. An orphan near of kin. Or a poor man lying in the dust.” (Surah al-Balad, Ch.90: V.11-17)

In his book, The Economic System of Islam, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra noted on these verses:

“Feeding of an orphan, near of kin does not mean that one should only feed the orphan who is a relative … There are orphans who do not have relatives. These orphans are so helpless and friendless that at times, even the most stone-hearted of men would feel sympathy and feed them … The last part of the verse asks why ‘a poor man lying in the dust’ was not fed … However, God expects us to have such sympathy and love that we must seek out the helpless poor who do not even have the capacity to protest and beg at someone’s door … he remains hidden away in sickness and grief; he is friendless with no hope or energy left.” (The Economic System of Islam, Islam International Publications Ltd. UK [2013], pp. 25-26)

The Quran assures those who feed the poor of the bliss of paradise. It says:

“And they feed, for love of Him, the poor, the orphan and the prisoner, saying, ‘We feed you for Allah’s pleasure only. We desire no reward nor thanks from you. ‘Verily, we fear from our Lord a frowning and distressful day.’ So Allah will save them from the evil of that day and will grant them cheerfulness and happiness.” (Surah al-Dahr, Ch.76: V.9-12)

On the other hand, about those who do not feed the poor, it presents a dramatic scenario that will unfold between them and the people of the right hand – dwellers of paradise – on the Day of Judgement:

“Except those on the right hand. They will be in Gardens asking one another concerning the guilty ones. ‘What has brought you into the Fire of Hell? They will say, ‘We were not of those who offered Prayers, nor did we feed the poor.” (Surah al-Muddaththir, Ch.74: V.40-45)

In the canonical traditions (ahadith), it is reported that the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa emphatically declared:

“Such a person is not a believer who passed the night with a filled stomach while his close neighbour remained hungry.” (Mustadrak Al Hakim)

In the perspective of the Prophetsa of Islam, the best of Islam is “that you give food and express the greetings of peace upon the one known or unknown to you!” (Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim)

4 COMMENTS

  1. A highly thought-provoking and touching article. So much time and thought has been put into it – now I will never look at challenges of sustainable food security in the same way! Will be sharing this article with others so more people find out about the beautiful teachings of Islam. JazakAllah.

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