Let’s define success, shall we?

Professor Robert Paarlberg has a long article in Foreign Policy that takes a critical look at feeding the poor. There’s much in it I agree with, and probably more I disagree with. I do have one important question, which I’m loathe to see buried among the comments at Foreign Policy.

Paarlberg devotes some time to attacking the “myth” that the Green Revolution was a failure. “In Asia,” he writes “the Green Revolution was good for both agriculture and social justice.” So here’s my question:

Why are 44% of the children under 5 years old in India malnourished?

Answers in the comments, please.

16 Replies to “Let’s define success, shall we?”

  1. I have always wondered if that has something to do with the lack of meat in the Indian diet.

    I would guess that the 44% refers to stunted children?…. Could it be that the Green Revolution in India prevented outright starvation but not hidden hunger (micronutrient deficiency)? I just took a quick look at the maps and India seems to suffer from both acute and long-term hunger.

    Could it be the demographic explosion in India? But that happened in China too, and they don’t seem to have quite the same malnutrition problem.

    I keep coming back to the question of meat in the diet — because it is the one thing where India seems to be quite different from other countries.

    1. You’re right Glenn, about less chronic hunger and more hidden hunger in places like India. I’m really not sure of the role of meat in this. There are places with similarly high rates of stunting in the under-fives, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, and I suspect there that straight poverty has more to do with it.

      My point really is that regardless of India’s transition to a food exporting country and all the other benefits associated with high-yielding varieties and intensification, if two out of five children are stunted, with all the disadvantages that creates down the generations, it is somewhat odd to be calling the Green Revolution a success, at least terms of human welfare.

  2. Why the either/or? Isn’t all success/failure relative? 44% of children under 5 in India are stunted today; that’s terrible. When I was young, in 1960, I remember many many many children [don’t have the stats] under 5 in India were regularly dying; which I guess is worse. The hunger wasn’t ‘hidden’ back then; it was in your face.

    I think if we’re going to be ‘successful’ in tackling big issues like hunger in South Asia – where vast human populations apparently are moving along a trajectory taking them in just half a century from regular starvation periods to chronic hunger to hidden hunger – we’re going to have to establish baselines and stay as mindful of where we’ve come from as where we mean to be going.

    That way, we’ll at least get to celebrate the small wins along the way.

    1. Susan, you raise a very interesting point. Is it better to keep children alive, and then effectively say “Sorry, kid, you’re on your own now.”?

  3. The prevalence of child malnutrition in India has little bearing on the question of the success or failure of the Green Revolution. It has more to do with the status of women in South Asia. Do a google search on the “Asian Enigma” and you will see that a lot has been written on this subject. Fixing India’s nutrition problems cannot be achieved solely by increasing grain production, but that doesn’t mean that whose efforts were a failure.

  4. Well said Michael. The question was ill formed, so the answers will be misleading.

    I think we also need to consider epigenetic effects. You aren’t only what you eat, you are what your mother and grandmother ate too. It takes at least 3 generations of good nutrition for genetic potential to be expressed.

    It can’t begin too soon.

    1. Of course the question was ill-formed; maybe it should not even have been a question. I know there aren’t simple answers, I just wanted to raise the point that for a host of reasons the fact remains that a large number of children under five in India are not getting sufficient nutrition. And the epigenetic effects, especially for women, are well known, hence my phrase “down the generations”.

      It seems to me we are all coming at this from different directions, and that’s fine. And we all recognise that there is a “this” to be coming at.

      Maybe I should rephrase my question: it is claimed, by Paarlberg and many others, that the Green Revolution was a success at some level. And yet 44% of children under five in India (with similar figures elsewhere that have also enjoyed the successes of the Green Revolution) remain stunted. What more needs to be done to bring childhood stunting down to levels that would be acceptable in a wealthy donor country, and to sustain that level of nutrition for three generations or more?

  5. Raising productivity is helpful if everyone has a paid job, so you can get more food for your money. It is less helpful to those who do not participate in the monetary economy. Yes, the food is cheaper, but you still need money to perceive the benefits of this. To be able to get money you need to have a job, and to get a job you need education.

    In India, not schools but toilets seem to be an enormously good investment in education.

  6. Maybe because there’s more children than there would have been if the cycles of famine had persisted.

    I guess they could be non-existent. Is that better?

  7. Some philosophy is indeed needed in debates about population, food, wealth distribution, and resource limits. Also a willingness to imagine the previously unimagined – an economics in which societies are dynamic yet operating within limits.

    Children and the elderly are essential to dynamic societies – to the cultural and intellectual dynamics as well as the economic dynamics. My view is that we need to give strong support to families that wish to have children, and strong support to individuals and families that do not wish to have children, or who cannot have children.

    We do not live by bread alone.

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