March 14, 2011
You say Potayto, I say Potahto

“…language is a treacherous thing, a most unsure vehicle…” – Mark Twain

The importance of how we use language emerged at the recent Indiana Humanities Council/Indiana’s Family of Farmers/WFYI Hunger event (listen to it, here). During introductory remarks, a United Nations study was quoted that projected a 70 percent increase in food demand by 2050. The way to meet this demand, argued the panelist, was largely going to be through biotechnology. An implicit link was established between technology and the hunger problem. Later, panelists were asked about the biggest myth surrounding hunger. The first myth mentioned was “that there isn’t enough food” and everyone agreed this was true. In fact, recent studies have shown that approximately 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is wasted, putting the costs in the tens of billions of dollars.

I was struck with the seeming paradox of these two positions. On one hand everyone agreed we have enough food to feed the hungry. On the other hand, we will need to produce 70 percent more food in the not-too-distant future. What to make of this? Do we need more food or not?

It comes back to the way the language surrounding the discussion was being used. The comingling of the terms “hunger” and “food demand” is fundamentally problematic. Hunger is a term largely defined by its physiological components: a painful sensation from the want of food or the lack of a certain number of calories for an individual. It can be universally understood across time and space. Its causes are relatively straightforward as poverty and hunger are tightly linked across the globe.

Food demand, however, is highly contextual, dynamic, and deeply embedded in culture as well as economics. Take food demand in China as an example. Chinese demand for protein (and the grains required to support this meat production) has been skyrocketing in recent years as its middle class rapidly emerges. Developing new technologies to increase food production is a response to Chinese food demand, an issue distinct from feeding China’s hungry.

I would argue that this is not simply an issue of semantics, but is very pragmatic. If we are to embrace technology as the primary solution to our hunger problem, we will likely not be successful. We have enough food and solving hunger is about poverty alleviation, geopolitics, international aid, and distribution systems. On the other hand, if we tackle global poverty in order to meet food demand, we also may fall short. Understanding population growth and stages of economic development would likely be more useful.

We must recognize that words matter and as the seriousness of the subjects increase, we should be increasingly careful about how we use language. Working together on challenging issues means starting from a common vernacular so that the solutions we propose are appropriate for the problems we face.

This post was written by Tim Carter, the director of Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology.

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