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Harm and Hunger: Funding Hunger

By Iona Soper

This blog was originally produced for Scottish ICAN in 2020 as part of my coverage of, and participation in, the International Fast For Life that takes place between the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki each year. By asking why fasting is a relevant way to protest nuclear weapons, what these pieces seek to demonstrate is the ways in which militarism is intrinsically linked to hunger. Severing this relationship will require international upheaval and a global commitment to a humanitarian approach to security.

Why do we fast?

Let’s talk about the funding of fear over food.

In 1983, the International Fast For Life was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of the widespread global attention it generated for the issue of nuclear disarmament. From August 06, 1983, over 150 fasts took place in 24 countries. For many organisers in Europe and North America, this fast was open-ended, and subject to demands, akin to a hunger strike. For thousands more, fasting in solidarity across the world, this was an unprecedented piece of international direct action, a revolutionary act of total nonviolence. And the movement flourished. In Italy, over 40 new peace groups were formed. Over 300 Parisians were arrested when a Fast For Life banner was hung over the iconic Arc de Triomphe. In Scotland, an open letter, signed by the heads of all Scotland’s major churches, was handed into the Queen and Prime Minister Thatcher. By September, an open letter to fasters was published by the World Council of Churches, reading, "Your fasting has fed the solidarity of all who hunger for disarmament. In your weakness you have made us strong".

Fasting in this context takes on a dual purpose. Fast For Life was born in the United States at the height of the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, the threat of an ‘all-out’ nuclear war seemingly imminent. Founders had concluded that “the nuclear crisis of that time was so grave that people of peace may have to offer up their lives in an effort to prevent the continuation of the silent holocaust of world hunger and the impending holocaust of nuclear fire”. And thus fasting was used as a nonviolent way of creating suffering as a means of drawing attention to a much graver evil. But the decision to fast was also born from a desire to emphasise the cruelty of governments’ financial prioritisation of weapons of mass destruction, when so many populations, both foreign and domestic, lived in poverty and starvation. Given that 1983 saw 15% of US citizens living below the poverty line, as well as the beginning of the Ethiopian famine that claimed an estimated million lives, it is little wonder that funding hunger was selected as the proposed alternative to funding death. And it’s an argument that remains crucially relevant today.

In the 37 years since the first International Fast, food inequality and human hunger has remained a widespread and urgent threat, particularly in regions affected by conflict or poverty. The UN Sustainable Development Goals which were adopted in 2015 and signed by 193 countries, including the UK and the USA, pledge a commitment to “ending hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture”. The 2020 edition of the UN Global Report on Food Crises put 135 million people worldwide living in crisis - before coronavirus. Now, the pandemic risks almost doubling that number by the end of the year. Vulnerable citizens living on the poverty line in ‘food-crisis’ countries may be tipped into malnutrition by the resulting scarcity of food coupled with rises in prices. And for those already malnourished, as little as a 5-10% decrease in caloric intake can prove to be lethal.

Lockdown regulations and safety measures designed to save citizens from the spread of the virus, in particular restrictions of movement, are restricting labour practises and obstructing the production, processing and transporting of food, delaying the whole process and reducing the availability of many foods and essential foodstuffs. This shortage will hit the hardest among those already most vulnerable to starvation: the unemployed, the impoverished, and the displaced. Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, writes that “At this time of immense global challenges; we must redouble our efforts to defeat hunger and malnutrition; We have the tools and the know-how. What we need is political will and sustained commitment by leaders and nations. This report should be seen as a call to action”.

Multiple agencies have attempted, since 1949, to calculate the financial cost of ‘ending world hunger’. In truth, a settled figure is surely unreliable due to the high number of inconsistent factors that create and maintain poverty and food insecurity - war, economic collapse, unemployment, climate change, pests, and, as we have seen all too cruelly this year - outbreaks of disease. Typically using 2030 as the target year for success, best recent estimates place the figure at anywhere from 7 billion USD per year to 265 USD per year. By comparison, the United States administration’s current plans for the U.S. nuclear weapons programme are projected to cost 494 billion USD from 2019 to 2028. In the United Kingdom, the replacement nuclear weapons programme is expected to cost 205 billion GBP (268 billion USD). Global spending on nuclear weapons is projected to reach a trillion USD over the next ten years. In 2019, it amounted to almost 140,000 USD, every minute.

Those who favour nuclear weapons will argue that the rediverting of funds would require defunding defence and reinvesting the funds into international humanitarian aid, to them, a dangerous and unthinkable choice. To this, I would ask, what is food security, if not defence against starvation? It’s 2020 and we no longer have a Ministry of War. Once we pause to consider defence policy through the lens of humanitarian security, the ending of world hunger (along with the other Sustainable Development Goals) are revealed as a far more appropriate use of ‘defence’ funds than weapons of mass destruction. But the choice to prioritise military spending doesn’t just harm those living in non-nuclear states far across the world. Food insecurity and malnourishment exist in the countries who choose to have nuclear weapons too.

In China, over 150 million people are malnourished. In Russia, 21 million live in poverty. In Pakistan the percentage of the population living in food insecurity is 36%. India’s rate is higher still at up to 40%. Although accurate data is hard to gather, the North Korean regime has long stood accused of ‘starving its own people for a nuke’. In the UK, 16% live in food insecurity, and in England, the rate of death by starvation has almost doubled since 2001. Since the beginning of lockdown, there has been an increase of almost 4 million people seeking help from food charities and food-banks. In the United States, the number of households living in food insecurity has risen from 11% in 2018, to 22-38% as of the beginning of America’s lockdown in April 2020, with these numbers set to continue rising as economic and employment fragility continue to reduce or remove incomes for vast swathes of the population.

The decision to spend vast chunks of the nations GDP maintaining a nuclear weapons programme while food insecurity remains an issue for their own electorates, is testament to just how far removed world leaders remain from the needs, and the wills, of their own people. I’m sure there isn’t a soul on earth who lies awake at night, restless from hunger, but comforted by the thought of nuclear weapons. The reframing of our conversations about security is imperative if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and tackle the very real threats that look all of us in the face.

How many more must we leave defenceless against starvation - how many will be lost from climate change - how many will perish from preventable diseases - before we recognise the full cost of our greed for power? When it comes to true defence, nuclear weapons systems are weapons of mass distraction.

So we fast.


We Hunger For Disarmament: International Fast For Life ( Fast For Life advertisement in The Ecologist, magazine Vol. 13, No. 4, 1983 archived in the online The Ecologist issue archive)

UN Sustainable Development Goals:

World Food Programme: Global Report on Food Crises 2020:

Adam Vaughan. “Covid-19 pandemic risks worst global food crisis in decades”.

Kaamil Ahmed. “Ending world hunger by 2030 would cost $330bn, study finds”.

Julian Borger. “World nuclear arms spending hit $73bn last year – half of it by US”.

World Food Programme: China.

Moscow Times: “21M Russians Live in Poverty, Official Data Says”

Russia’s State Statistics Service (Rosstat):

Mariam Khan. “Population Growth, Inflation and Food Insecurity in Pakistan”

Biswabhusan Bhuyan: “Food insecurity dynamics in India: A synthetic panel approach”

Social Sciences and Humanities Open, Vol 2, Issue 1

David Francis. Fiscal Times. “How North Korea Starved Its People For A Nuke”

Loopstra, R. (2020). Vulnerability to food insecurity since the COVID-19 lockdown.

Trussel Trust. “Summary findings on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on food banks”. July 2020.

Roberts, N. “Number Of Food Insecure Households More Than Doubles As Food Banks Struggle”. Forbes 2020


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