DES MOINES — People suffering from hunger and malnutrition are being deprived of their human rights, according to a leading theologian who spoke before the World Food Conference here.
"Starvation and chronic undernutrition are an assault on human dignity," said Father William J. Byron, president of Catholic University in Washington. "People have a right to a nutritionally adequate diet and anyone should be able to make this claim upon the world community. Human rights must include the right to food."
Byron's moving presentation was one of several major addresses to the conference, the theme of which was "Hunger in the Midst of Plenty." The four-day event drew about 500 people from more than 30 countries.
Most of the speeches and seminars dwelt on international trade, farm subsidies, Third World debt and foreign aid. But several speakers brought to the fore the lingering global hunger issue, which has faded from the public eye in recent months.
Speaking on both the domestic and international situation, Byron criticized those who blame the poor and disadvantaged for hunger's persistence. "Some fall into the trap of saying that if a person is hungry, then it's their own fault," he said. "Too often, the public believes that those deprived of wholesome food are simply unwilling to work or can't get a job.
"Well, there are many people that can not function in the labor market: the infants, the ill, the elderly," he said. "We don't have 4-year-olds in the labor market yet, but we do have 4-year-olds that are hungry.
"Nor should survival depend on employment performance," he said. "One's failure to produce (in the workplace) or (inability to) buy food will only lead to further (nutrient) deprivation and even less human dignity."
Byron urged all governments and anti-hunger activists to add the food issue to any future discussions of human rights--a topic that normally prompts talk of unrestricted emigration and freedom of speech, religion or assembly.
As the conferees quickly discovered last week, solutions to world food issues are elusive. Even determining the hunger problem's scope proved difficult, as estimates varied on the toll of food shortages. But one speaker illustrated the current situation in stark terms by stating that as many as 40,000 children die each day because of illnesses related to malnutrition.
"Hunger has . . . reached such (an) extent and its victims are so numerous that future generations will undoubtedly regard it as the greatest catastrophe of our times, surpassing in horror and magnitude all the other tragedies that have unfortunately marked the 20th Century," said Archbishop Renato R. Martino, the Vatican's United Nations observer, who along with Byron addressed hunger's moral and ethical issues.
Martino said food producing countries with an abundance of goods have a "duty" to provide immediate aid to those still struggling for survival.
And many agreed with Byron when he said that the root of hunger is poverty. Only when America and other affluent nations demonstrate the political will to end the suffering can the issue be solved, he said.
This theme was also evident in a speech by Rep. E. (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.), the agriculture committee chairman in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"World hunger in the 1980s is not based on our inability to produce enough food," he said. "Agricultural science and technology have given us the ability to feed the world's population. Rather, the primary cause of hunger is the economic poverty that exists. . . ."
De la Garza urged undeveloped countries to make long-range agriculture projects a priority, stating that food production is the "world's most important activity."
The fact that many developed countries, such as the United States, are grappling with farm subsidies and crop surpluses when there is hunger and malnutrition in other areas of the world is indeed ironic, De la Garza said.
The congressmen proposed expanding U.S. agriculture research, providing further economic development for Third World nations and free trade in farm commodities.
Not all of the responsibility for "Hunger in the Midst of Plenty" was blamed on the industrialized nations. A few developing countries were also criticized for agriculture policy.
"The Philippines growing a lot of sugar for the world market is an example of a country that is raising food for export and not distribution at home," said Byron. "This (the sugar plantation) is land that could be used to grow food for domestic stomachs."
He also singled out several African nations that are growing cash crops such as tobacco rather than staples for domestic populations. And Byron also acknowledged that there is government corruption in some of the countries receiving Western relief aid.
And yet, the hunger problem is likely to be compounded further because there increasingly are financial limits to the amount of aid that can be provided to areas hit hard by poverty. The United States, for one, continues to grapple with its own budget and trade deficits as well as a burgeoning homeless population.
Even so, addressing domestic U.S. hunger and poverty is at least a beginning, Byron said. "It would be inconsistent to be worried about international hunger and be oblivious to hunger at home. For now, people should at least think globally and act locally," he said.
One method for alleviating the suffering and homelessness in this country, he said, is to create more jobs. "The most effective social program we could have is a full employment economy."
The World Food Conference was hosted by Iowa State University, the Iowa Congressional Delegation and Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad.