Feature

More Than 1 Billion People Are Hungry in the World

But what if the experts are wrong?

For many in the West, poverty is almost synonymous with hunger. Indeed, the announcement by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2009 that more than 1 billion people are suffering from hunger grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did.

But is it really true? Are there really more than a billion people going to bed hungry each night? Our research on this question has taken us to rural villages and teeming urban slums around the world, collecting data and speaking with poor people about what they eat and what else they buy, from Morocco to Kenya, Indonesia to India. We've also tapped into a wealth of insights from our academic colleagues. What we've found is that the story of hunger, and of poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn't necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice.

But unfortunately, this is not always the world as the experts view it. All too many of them still promote sweeping, ideological solutions to problems that defy one-size-fits-all answers, arguing over foreign aid, for example, while the facts on the ground bear little resemblance to the fierce policy battles they wage.

Jeffrey Sachs, an advisor to the United Nations and director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, is one such expert. In books and countless speeches and television appearances, he has argued that poor countries are poor because they are hot, infertile, malaria-infested, and often landlocked; these factors, however, make it hard for them to be productive without an initial large investment to help them deal with such endemic problems. But they cannot pay for the investments precisely because they are poor -- they are in what economists call a "poverty trap." Until something is done about these problems, neither free markets nor democracy will do very much for them.

But then there are others, equally vocal, who believe that all of Sachs's answers are wrong. William Easterly, who battles Sachs from New York University at the other end of Manhattan, has become one of the most influential aid critics in his books, The Elusive Quest for Growth and The White Man's Burden. Dambisa Moyo, an economist who worked at Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, has joined her voice to Easterly's with her recent book, Dead Aid. Both argue that aid does more bad than good. It prevents people from searching for their own solutions, while corrupting and undermining local institutions and creating a self-perpetuating lobby of aid agencies. The best bet for poor countries, they argue, is to rely on one simple idea: When markets are free and the incentives are right, people can find ways to solve their problems. They do not need handouts from foreigners or their own governments. In this sense, the aid pessimists are actually quite optimistic about the way the world works. According to Easterly, there is no such thing as a poverty trap.

This debate cannot be solved in the abstract. To find out whether there are in fact poverty traps, and, if so, where they are and how to help the poor get out of them, we need to better understand the concrete problems they face. Some aid programs help more than others, but which ones? Finding out required us to step out of the office and look more carefully at the world. In 2003, we founded what became the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, or J-PAL. A key part of our mission is to research by using randomized control trials -- similar to experiments used in medicine to test the effectiveness of a drug -- to understand what works and what doesn't in the real-world fight against poverty. In practical terms, that meant we'd have to start understanding how the poor really live their lives.

Take, for example, Pak Solhin, who lives in a small village in West Java, Indonesia. He once explained to us exactly how a poverty trap worked. His parents used to have a bit of land, but they also had 13 children and had to build so many houses for each of them and their families that there was no land left for cultivation. Pak Solhin had been working as a casual agricultural worker, which paid up to 10,000 rupiah per day (about $2) for work in the fields. A recent hike in fertilizer and fuel prices, however, had forced farmers to economize. The local farmers decided not to cut wages, Pak Solhin told us, but to stop hiring workers instead. As a result, in the two months before we met him in 2008, he had not found a single day of agricultural labor. He was too weak for the most physical work, too inexperienced for more skilled labor, and, at 40, too old to be an apprentice. No one would hire him.

Pak Solhin, his wife, and their three children took drastic steps to survive. His wife left for Jakarta, some 80 miles away, where she found a job as a maid. But she did not earn enough to feed the children. The oldest son, a good student, dropped out of school at 12 and started as an apprentice on a construction site. The two younger children were sent to live with their grandparents. Pak Solhin himself survived on the roughly 9 pounds of subsidized rice he got every week from the government and on fish he caught at a nearby lake. His brother fed him once in a while. In the week before we last spoke with him, he had eaten two meals a day for four days, and just one for the other three.

Pak Solhin appeared to be out of options, and he clearly attributed his problem to a lack of food. As he saw it, farmers weren't interested in hiring him because they feared they couldn't pay him enough to avoid starvation; and if he was starving, he would be useless in the field. What he described was the classic nutrition-based poverty trap, as it is known in the academic world. The idea is simple: The human body needs a certain number of calories just to survive. So when someone is very poor, all the food he or she can afford is barely enough to allow for going through the motions of living and earning the meager income used to buy that food. But as people get richer, they can buy more food and that extra food goes into building strength, allowing people to produce much more than they need to eat merely to stay alive. This creates a link between income today and income tomorrow: The very poor earn less than they need to be able to do significant work, but those who have enough to eat can work even more. There's the poverty trap: The poor get poorer, and the rich get richer and eat even better, and get stronger and even richer, and the gap keeps increasing.

But though Pak Solhin's explanation of how someone might get trapped in starvation was perfectly logical, there was something vaguely troubling about his narrative. We met him not in war-infested Sudan or in a flooded area of Bangladesh, but in a village in prosperous Java, where, even after the increase in food prices in 2007 and 2008, there was clearly plenty of food available and a basic meal did not cost much. He was still eating enough to survive; why wouldn't someone be willing to offer him the extra bit of nutrition that would make him productive in return for a full day's work? More generally, although a hunger-based poverty trap is certainly a logical possibility, is it really relevant for most poor people today? What's the best way, if any, for the world to help?

THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY has certainly bought into the idea that poverty traps exist -- and that they are the reason that millions are starving. The first U.N. Millennium Development Goal, for instance, is to "eradicate extreme poverty and hunger." In many countries, the definition of poverty itself has been connected to food; the thresholds for determining that someone was poor were originally calculated as the budget necessary to buy a certain number of calories, plus some other indispensable purchases, such as housing. A "poor" person has essentially been classified as someone without enough to eat.

So it is no surprise that government efforts to help the poor are largely based on the idea that the poor desperately need food and that quantity is what matters. Food subsidies are ubiquitous in the Middle East: Egypt spent $3.8 billion on food subsidies in the 2008 fiscal year, some 2 percent of its GDP. Indonesia distributes subsidized rice. Many states in India have a similar program. In the state of Orissa, for example, the poor are entitled to 55 pounds of rice a month at about 1 rupee per pound, less than 20 percent of the market price. Currently, the Indian Parliament is debating a Right to Food Act, which would allow people to sue the government if they are starving. Delivering such food aid is a logistical nightmare. In India it is estimated that more than half of the wheat and one-third of the rice gets "lost" along the way. To support direct food aid in this circumstance, one would have to be quite convinced that what the poor need more than anything is more grain.

But what if the poor are not, in general, eating too little food? What if, instead, they are eating the wrong kinds of food, depriving them of nutrients needed to be successful, healthy adults? What if the poor aren't starving, but choosing to spend their money on other priorities? Development experts and policymakers would have to completely reimagine the way they think about hunger. And governments and aid agencies would need to stop pouring money into failed programs and focus instead on finding new ways to truly improve the lives of the world's poorest.

Consider India, one of the great puzzles in this age of food crises. The standard media story about the country, at least when it comes to food, is about the rapid rise of obesity and diabetes as the urban upper-middle class gets richer. Yet the real story of nutrition in India over the last quarter-century, as Princeton professor Angus Deaton and Jean Drèze, a professor at Allahabad University and a special advisor to the Indian government, have shown, is not that Indians are becoming fatter: It is that they are in fact eating less and less. Despite the country's rapid economic growth, per capita calorie consumption in India has declined; moreover, the consumption of all other nutrients except fat also appears to have gone down among all groups, even the poorest. Today, more than three-quarters of the population live in households whose per capita calorie consumption is less than 2,100 calories in urban areas and 2,400 in rural areas -- numbers that are often cited as "minimum requirements" in India for those engaged in manual labor. Richer people still eat more than poorer people. But at all levels of income, the share of the budget devoted to food has declined and people consume fewer calories.

What is going on? The change is not driven by declining incomes; by all accounts, Indians are making more money than ever before. Nor is it because of rising food prices -- between the early 1980s and 2005, food prices declined relative to the prices of other things, both in rural and urban India. Although food prices have increased again since 2005, Indians began eating less precisely when the price of food was going down.

So the poor, even those whom the FAO would classify as hungry on the basis of what they eat, do not seem to want to eat much more even when they can. Indeed, they seem to be eating less. What could explain this? Well, to start, let's assume that the poor know what they are doing. After all, they are the ones who eat and work. If they could be tremendously more productive and earn much more by eating more, then they probably would. So could it be that eating more doesn't actually make us particularly more productive, and as a result, there is no nutrition-based poverty trap?

One reason the poverty trap might not exist is that most people have enough to eat. We live in a world today that is theoretically capable of feeding every person on the planet. In 1996, the FAO estimated that world food production was enough to provide at least 2,700 calories per person per day. Starvation still exists, but only as a result of the way food gets shared among us. There is no absolute scarcity. Using price data from the Philippines, we calculated the cost of the cheapest diet sufficient to give 2,400 calories. It would cost only about 21 cents a day, very affordable even for the very poor (the worldwide poverty line is set at roughly a dollar per day). The catch is, it would involve eating only bananas and eggs, something no one would like to do day in, day out. But so long as people are prepared to eat bananas and eggs when they need to, we should find very few people stuck in poverty because they do not get enough to eat. Indian surveys bear this out: The percentage of people who say they do not have enough food has dropped dramatically over time, from 17 percent in 1983 to 2 percent in 2004. So, perhaps people eat less because they are less hungry.

And perhaps they are really less hungry, despite eating fewer calories. It could be that because of improvements in water and sanitation, they are leaking fewer calories in bouts of diarrhea and other ailments. Or maybe they are less hungry because of the decline of heavy physical work. With the availability of drinking water in villages, women do not need to carry heavy loads for long distances; improvements in transportation have reduced the need to travel on foot; in even the poorest villages, flour is now milled using a motorized mill, instead of women grinding it by hand. Using the average calorie requirements calculated by the Indian Council of Medical Research, Deaton and Drèze note that the decline in calorie consumption over the last quarter-century could be entirely explained by a modest decrease in the number of people engaged in heavy physical work.

Beyond India, one hidden assumption in our description of the poverty trap is that the poor eat as much as they can. If there is any chance that by eating a bit more the poor could start doing meaningful work and get out of the poverty trap zone, then they should eat as much as possible. Yet most people living on less than a dollar a day do not seem to act as if they are starving. If they were, surely they would put every available penny into buying more calories. But they do not. In an 18-country data set we assembled on the lives of the poor, food represents 36 to 79 percent of consumption among the rural extremely poor, and 53 to 74 percent among their urban counterparts.

It is not because they spend all the rest on other necessities. In Udaipur, India, for example, we find that the typical poor household could spend up to 30 percent more on food, if it completely cut expenditures on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. The poor seem to have many choices, and they don't choose to spend as much as they can on food. Equally remarkable is that even the money that people do spend on food is not spent to maximize the intake of calories or micronutrients. Studies have shown that when very poor people get a chance to spend a little bit more on food, they don't put everything into getting more calories. Instead, they buy better-tasting, more expensive calories.

In one study conducted in two regions of China, researchers offered randomly selected poor households a large subsidy on the price of the basic staple (wheat noodles in one region, rice in the other). We usually expect that when the price of something goes down, people buy more of it. The opposite happened. Households that received subsidies for rice or wheat consumed less of those two foods and ate more shrimp and meat, even though their staples now cost less. Overall, the caloric intake of those who received the subsidy did not increase (and may even have decreased), despite the fact that their purchasing power had increased. Nor did the nutritional content improve in any other sense. The likely reason is that because the rice and wheat noodles were cheap but not particularly tasty, feeling richer might actually have made them consume less of those staples. This reasoning suggests that at least among these very poor urban households, getting more calories was not a priority: Getting better-tasting ones was.

All told, many poor people might eat fewer calories than we -- or the FAO -- think is appropriate. But this does not seem to be because they have no other choice; rather, they are not hungry enough to seize every opportunity to eat more. So perhaps there aren't a billion "hungry" people in the world after all.

NONE OF THIS IS TO SAY that the logic of the hunger-based poverty trap is flawed. The idea that better nutrition would propel someone on the path to prosperity was almost surely very important at some point in history, and it may still be today. Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Robert Fogel calculated that in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, food production did not provide enough calories to sustain a full working population. This could explain why there were large numbers of beggars -- they were literally incapable of any work. The pressure of just getting enough food to survive seems to have driven some people to take rather extreme steps. There was an epidemic of witch killing in Europe during the Little Ice Age (from the mid-1500s to 1800), when crop failures were common and fish was less abundant. Even today, Tanzania experiences a rash of such killings whenever there is a drought -- a convenient way to get rid of an unproductive mouth to feed at times when resources are very tight. Families, it seems, suddenly discover that an older woman living with them (usually a grandmother) is a witch, after which she gets chased away or killed by others in the village.

But the world we live in today is for the most part too rich for the occasional lack of food to be a big part of the story of the persistence of poverty on a large scale. This is of course different during natural or man-made disasters, or in famines that kill and weaken millions. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has shown, most recent famines have been caused not because food wasn't available but because of bad governance -- institutional failures that led to poor distribution of the available food, or even hoarding and storage in the face of starvation elsewhere. As Sen put it, "No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press."

Should we let it rest there, then? Can we assume that the poor, though they may be eating little, do eat as much as they need to?

That also does not seem plausible. While Indians may prefer to buy things other than food as they get richer, they and their children are certainly not well nourished by any objective standard. Anemia is rampant; body-mass indices are some of the lowest in the world; almost half of children under 5 are much too short for their age, and one-fifth are so skinny that they are considered to be "wasted."

And this is not without consequences. There is a lot of evidence that children suffering from malnutrition generally grow into less successful adults. In Kenya, children who were given deworming pills in school for two years went to school longer and earned, as young adults, 20 percent more than children in comparable schools who received deworming for just one year. Worms contribute to anemia and general malnutrition, essentially because they compete with the child for nutrients. And the negative impact of undernutrition starts before birth. In Tanzania, to cite just one example, children born to mothers who received sufficient amounts of iodine during pregnancy completed between one-third and one-half of a year more schooling than their siblings who were in utero when their mothers weren't being treated. It is a substantial increase, given that most of these children will complete only four or five years of schooling in total. In fact, the study concludes that if every mother took iodine capsules, there would be a 7.5 percent increase in the total educational attainment of children in Central and Southern Africa. This, in turn, could measurably affect lifetime productivity.

Better nutrition matters for adults, too. In another study, in Indonesia, researchers tested the effects of boosting people's intake of iron, a key nutrient that prevents anemia. They found that iron supplements made men able to work harder and significantly boosted income. A year's supply of iron-fortified fish sauce cost the equivalent of $6, and for a self-employed male, the yearly gain in earnings was nearly $40 -- an excellent investment.

If the gains are so obvious, why don't the poor eat better? Eating well doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive. Most mothers could surely afford iodized salt, which is now standard in many parts of the world, or one dose of iodine every two years (at 51 cents per dose). Poor households could easily get a lot more calories and other nutrients by spending less on expensive grains (like rice and wheat), sugar, and processed foods, and more on leafy vegetables and coarse grains. But in Kenya, when the NGO that was running the deworming program asked parents in some schools to pay a few cents for deworming their children, almost all refused, thus depriving their children of hundreds of dollars of extra earnings over their lifetime.

Why? And why did anemic Indonesian workers not buy iron-fortified fish sauce on their own? One answer is that they don't believe it will matter -- their employers may not realize that they are more productive now. (In fact, in Indonesia, earnings improved only for the self-employed workers.) But this does not explain why all pregnant women in India aren't using only iodine-fortified salt, which is now available in every village. Another possibility is that people may not realize the value of feeding themselves and their children better -- not everyone has the right information, even in the United States. Moreover, people tend to be suspicious of outsiders who tell them that they should change their diet. When rice prices went up sharply in 1966 and 1967, the chief minister of West Bengal suggested that eating less rice and more vegetables would be both good for people's health and easier on their budgets. This set off a flurry of outrage, and the chief minister was greeted by protesters bearing garlands of vegetables wherever he went.

It is simply not very easy to learn about the value of many of these nutrients based on personal experience. Iodine might make your children smarter, but the difference is not huge, and in most cases you will not find out either way for many years. Iron, even if it makes people stronger, does not suddenly turn you into a superhero. The $40 extra a year the self-employed man earned may not even have been apparent to him, given the many ups and downs of his weekly income.

So it shouldn't surprise us that the poor choose their foods not mainly for their cheap prices and nutritional value, but for how good they taste. George Orwell, in his masterful description of the life of poor British workers in The Road to Wigan Pier, observes:

The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes -- an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't.… When you are unemployed … you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit "tasty." There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.

The poor often resist the wonderful plans we think up for them because they do not share our faith that those plans work, or work as well as we claim. We shouldn't forget, too, that other things may be more important in their lives than food. Poor people in the developing world spend large amounts on weddings, dowries, and christenings. Part of the reason is probably that they don't want to lose face, when the social custom is to spend a lot on those occasions. In South Africa, poor families often spend so lavishly on funerals that they skimp on food for months afterward.

And don't underestimate the power of factors like boredom. Life can be quite dull in a village. There is no movie theater, no concert hall. And not a lot of work, either. In rural Morocco, Oucha Mbarbk and his two neighbors told us they had worked about 70 days in agriculture and about 30 days in construction that year. Otherwise, they took care of their cattle and waited for jobs to materialize. All three men lived in small houses without water or sanitation. They struggled to find enough money to give their children a good education. But they each had a television, a parabolic antenna, a DVD player, and a cell phone.

This is something that Orwell captured as well, when he described how poor families survived the Depression:

Instead of raging against their destiny they have made things tolerable by reducing their standards.

But they don't necessarily lower their standards by cutting out luxuries and concentrating on necessities; more often it is the other way around -- the more natural way, if you come to think of it. Hence the fact that in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap luxuries has increased.

These "indulgences" are not the impulsive purchases of people who are not thinking hard about what they are doing. Oucha Mbarbk did not buy his TV on credit -- he saved up over many months to scrape enough money together, just as the mother in India starts saving for her young daughter's wedding by buying a small piece of jewelry here and a stainless-steel bucket there.

We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don't invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

We asked Oucha Mbarbk what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, "Oh, but television is more important than food!"

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Feature

How Food Explains the World

From China's strategic pork reserve to a future where insects are the new white meat, 10 reasons we really are what we eat.

They say you are what you eat. And that applies to countries and cultures as much as individuals. The food in our mouths defines us in far more fundamental and visceral terms than the gas in our tanks or the lines on a map. So it's not surprising that the most important questions of global politics often boil down to: What should we eat?

The Strategic Pork Reserve

China is a porcine superpower as well as a human one. The Middle Kingdom boasts more than 446 million pigs -- one for every three Chinese people and more than the next 43 countries combined. So when there's a major disruption in the pork supply it hits the economy hard; the "blue-ear pig" disease that forced Chinese farmers to slaughter millions of pigs in 2008, for example, drove the country's inflation rate to its highest level in a decade.

To prevent further disruptions, the Chinese government established a strategic pork reserve shortly afterward, keeping icy warehouses around the country stocked with frozen pork that can be released during times of shortage. The government was forced to add to the reserve -- taking pigs off the market -- in the spring of 2010 when a glut led to prices collapsing.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images 

Cornering the Chocolate Market

Labeled "Chocfinger" and "Willy Wonka" in the media, British investor Anthony Ward has emerged over the last decade as the undisputed king of the global chocolate market. In 2002, Ward purchased more than 150,000 tons of cocoa, or around 5 percent of global production. He did it again in the summer of 2010, buying upwards of 240,000 tons -- enough to make about 5 billion chocolate bars -- to give him control of about 7 percent of global production. It was the largest delivery of cocoa on the London exchange in at least a decade, and Ward became the go-to source for chocolate manufacturers looking for beans. Other investors cried foul, claiming that Ward was driving up prices on a commodity that had already increased in value by more than 150 percent over the previous two and a half years.

Ward isn't just a mad chocolate fiend; he has also made a long-term bet that supply problems in West Africa will continue to push prices up. The demand for cocoa has risen about 3 percent annually over the last century and has spiked sharply during this year's political turmoil in Ivory Coast, which grows about 40 percent of the world's crop. It also turns out that demand for chocolate is countercyclical: Hershey's profits jumped 40 percent in 2009 during the global financial crisis.

KAMBOU SIA/AFP/Getty Images

Hummus Wars 

A lesser-known and thankfully less destructive front of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the ongoing fight for bragging rights over who can produce the world's largest batch of hummus. Israel for years had held the world record with a 900-pound bowl of the popular chickpea-based dip. But Lebanon, which claims that Israel has appropriated a traditionally Lebanese dish, struck back with a 4,532-pound hummus plate in 2009. Israel retaliated just two months later when a crack group of Israeli chefs whipped up an 8,993-pound dish. Then, in 2010, Lebanon retook the crown with a 23,042-pound batch. (Apparently no one stopped to consider the Dead Sea-sized slice of pita bread it would take to eat all that dip.)

The fight doesn't appear likely to end anytime soon. Lebanese hummus producers have threatened to charge Israel with copyright violation, relying on the precedent of a European Court of Justice ruling that gave Greece exclusive rights to make feta cheese. The two sides have also fought bitterly over the world record for the largest vat of tabbouleh.

RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images

Bug Bites

The developed world's ever-increasing appetite for meat is turning into a genuine environmental catastrophe, as the raising of livestock to feed that appetite now generates up to 20 percent of the greenhouse gases driving global warming, according to the United Nations. Many environmentalists advocate vegetarianism -- or at least eating less meat -- as a solution. But the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is asking consumers to consider another option: eating insects.

An insect-based diet could provide just as much protein as meat (plus key vitamins and minerals) with far fewer emissions, the FAO says. And breeding insects such as locusts, crickets, and mealworms emits one-tenth the amount of methane that raising livestock does, scientists say.

The idea isn't as far-out as one might think. More than 1,000 insects are already known to be eaten in about 80 percent of the world's countries, though the idea remains a source of revulsion in the Western world. The FAO  is putting its money where its mouth is, investing in insect-farming projects in Laos, where locusts and crickets are already popular delicacies. A world conference on insect eating is planned for 2013.

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

The Doomsday Pepper Vault

Where should you go for a good meal after the apocalypse? Try Svalbard, a remote island archipelago more than 600 miles north of mainland Norway, where a unique facility has been built inside a mountain to safeguard the world's future food supply in case of catastrophe.

Officially opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is built 426 feet under the mountain's surface. The $6.7 million facility will eventually store 4.5 million frozen seed samples from more than 100 countries. Many countries host their own food banks, but the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international coalition dedicated to food security, decided to build the facility as a backup. The site was chosen for its remote location, low temperatures, and low level of seismic activity.

And if you were worried that your food would be bland in the post-apocalyptic future, fret no more. In 2010, a delegation of U.S. senators delivered a collection of North American chili peppers, including Wenk's Yellow Hots and San Juan Tsiles, to be preserved for all eternity.

Larsen, Hakon Mosvold/AFP/Getty Images

Colonel Sanders Imperialism

In the early days of Egypt's anti-government uprising this winter, some journalists attempted to label it the "Koshary Revolution" after Egypt's traditional dish of rice, lentils, macaroni, and fried onions. But Hosni Mubarak's embattled regime was hoping to tie the protesters to a more sinister foodstuff: Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Reports on state television described protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square munching on free buckets of KFC, seeing them as proof of subversive foreign influence, though independent journalists at the scene couldn't find a particularly high number of KFC eaters. The U.S. chain has about 100 restaurants in Egypt, compared with fewer than 60 for McDonald's, but the price of a meal, which can be up to three days' wages, makes it a rare delicacy for most Egyptians. There were also reports of the government paying its thugs with chicken dinners, and street vendors jokingly began shouting "Kentucky" to hawk everything from popcorn to falafel.

Surprisingly, this wasn't the first time that KFC has been cast as the enemy in the Muslim world. In 2006, Pakistani rioters burned down a KFC in response to the Danish Mohammed cartoons controversy. This followed another -- and seemingly even more random -- burning of a KFC one year earlier by a mob angered by a suicide bombing at a mosque in Karachi.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Superfood of the Incas … Stolen by Yuppies

The trendiest new staple at your local Whole Foods is probably quinoa, an Andean grain so high in minerals, protein, and amino acids that the FAO says it can be substituted for mother's milk. Quinoa was introduced to the North American market three decades ago, but since 2000 it has really taken off, with the price jumping nearly sevenfold. That's great news for the Bolivian farmers who produce the vast majority of the world's supply, but it may be bad news for the country's health. With their country now exporting around 90 percent of its quinoa crop, many Bolivians simply can't afford it anymore. Domestic quinoa consumption has fallen 34 percent in the last five years, and health officials fear a rise in obesity rates as Bolivians abandon the highly nutritious grain they've enjoyed since the time of the Incas and switch to imported staples like rice and white bread. President Evo Morales's government has even designated quinoa a "strategic" foodstuff and included it in a subsidized food parcel for pregnant women. But more drastic measures may be needed to keep up with the insatiable demand of Western foodies. Let's hope for Egypt's sake that the Whole Foods set doesn't develop a taste for koshary anytime soon.

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images

The Gold (Cabbage) Rush

South Koreans take their national staple, kimchi, very seriously. There's a museum dedicated to the fermented cabbage dish in Seoul, and servings of it were shot into space along with the country's first astronaut. So in the fall of 2010, when kimchi prices began soaring because of poor weather conditions and a bad cabbage harvest, Koreans predictably freaked out.

As prices increased nearly fourfold -- it normally costs $4 to $5 for a meal -- consumers began referring to the dish as geum-chi, the Korean word for gold, and demanded the government take action. Pundits lambasted President Lee Myung-bak for suggesting that Koreans try eating cheaper North American cabbage. To head off potential unrest -- or even a kimchi revolution -- the Seoul city government began a kimchi bailout program, assuming 30 percent of the cost of an emergency supply of cabbage it purchased from rural farmers. The national government also grudgingly reduced tariffs on imported Chinese cabbage, betting, successfully, that more cabbage would bring prices back down. Fear of Chinese dominance over their national food supply, it turned out, didn't trump Koreans' love of spicy vegetables.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Canada's Hunt Country

There are few political statements more striking than plunging a carving knife into one of the world's cuddlier endangered species and eating its raw heart on camera. That's just what Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean -- then Queen Elizabeth II's representative in the Canadian government -- did during a 2009 visit to indigenous communities in northern Canada, a few weeks after the European Union slapped a ban on Canadian seal products.

Indigenous Canadians are legally permitted to hunt a small number of seals per year, as they have for centuries. But, more controversially, commercial fishermen are allowed to kill up to 280,000 seals per year. Seal meat is an increasingly popular delicacy in Montreal's chicest restaurants, and the issue has become a matter of national pride for Canada's Conservative government, which invited chefs to serve seal meat in the Canadian Parliament cafeteria in 2010 to protest the EU ban.

Scientists call animals like seals and whales -- which are controversially hunted in Japan and Iceland -- "charismatic megafauna" because their appearance and appeal to humans have become a survival advantage. But with the world's human population and food prices skyrocketing, cuteness may not be enough to save these animals for much longer.

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R U Hungry?

It might seem inconceivable that people with no access to food would own cell phones, but as prices fall and phone ownership becomes more of a necessity of modern life, it's not as unheard of as one might think. This may be a sad reflection on the modern world, but it also provides aid agencies with a rare opportunity to help those in need.

In 2007, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) began experimenting with cell-phone-based aid when it sent around 10,000 text messages to Iraqi refugees living in Syria, alerting them to a new food distribution program. In 2009, the wfp began a pilot program to deliver vouchers for food aid via cell phone to refugees living in Damascus. The agency initially targeted about 1,000 refugee families, who received a $22 voucher every two months that could be exchanged for staples like rice, wheat, and chickpeas at selected shops.

Surprisingly, though many families had difficulty keeping food on the table, the WFP reported that nearly all of the 130,000 refugees receiving food aid from the broader program owned a cell phone. The program was a success, and in late 2010, it was expanded to thousands more refugees living outside the capital. With more than 379 million cell-phone users as of 2009 in Africa, the world's poorest continent, the potential for growth is nearly limitless.

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