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PBS specials examine the causes of world hunger

Nova: Will the World Starve? Tuesday, 8-9 p.m., on WGBH, Boston; check local listings. Nova: The Desert Doesn't Bloom Here Anymore Tuesday, Dec. 29, 8-9 p.m., on WGBH, Boston; check local listings.

The Politics of Food Tuesday, Dec. 29, 9-11 p.m., on WGBH, Boston; check local listings.

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Circle of Plenty Thursday, Dec. 31, 8-8:30, on WGBX (Channel 44), Boston; check local listings.

Decades ago George Orwell forecast what he described as ``the ultimate obscenity'': a time when half the world watched the other half starving to death.

By 1984 Orwell's words were largely realized as gruesome color scenes of famine-racked Ethiopia, the Sudan, and elsewhere in the Sahelian belt were flashed into living rooms all over the Western world. They told a horror story that aroused the world's compassion, elicited a generous response, and caused a few in the news media to probe more deeply into the causes of world hunger.

In the process they came to a disturbing conclusion: that, in the words of a TV special that's coming up, ``World hunger is not the result of famine or of overpopulation but is the result of political forces.'' To a lesser degree political decisions have also contributed to soil loss and water contamination, the twin threats that in the long run threaten food production everywhere.

At various times this month (check local listings), PBS stations are airing several documentaries: two ``Nova'' programs, ``Will the World Starve'' and ``The Desert Doesn't Bloom Here Anymore''; and two other specials, ``The Politics of Food'' and ``Circle of Plenty.'' They paint a picture that is both alarming and at times enraging, but they also point out other options - those isolated success stories where the tide has been turned - that give reason for hope.

The Western world, convinced of its generosity and aware of political corruption and petty bureaucracy in much of the third world, blames much of the starvation on the leaders of the countries hardest hit. But as ``The Politics of Food'' clearly shows, the US has also contributed to the problem by trying to export its agricultural system to small countries where it is inappropriate.

The effect has been to force small farmers from the land, creating an elite land-owning class that serves the interests of multinational corporations rather than the local population by concentrating on sugar, cocoa, soybeans, and other export crops.

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When the Sudan government decided to increase local food production in its fertile Gezira region in the 1970s, it became self-sufficient and even had a surplus for export. But this food-first policy ran counter to the wishes of its creditors, notably the World Bank, which decreed that Sudan should instead grow cotton for the export market and use the earnings to buy foreign food. In debt and needing to borrow more money, the Sudanese had no option but to comply.

Some of the worst erosion in the world took place in China after Mao Tse-tung decreed that apple orchards be cut and grain grown on too precipitous slopes. But individual farmers have developed ways to check soil loss and even to create whole new fields from the silt-rich runoff. And in India, sparkle and vitality have returned to a town simply because the limited resources of the region are shared more equitably.

Finally there is a Western-developed system of minifarming, described in ``Circle of Plenty,'' that has amazed residents of a small Mexican town by its remarkable productivity. Most significant, it has shown people that they can do something to help ensure their own well-being.

For those interested in getting a better understanding of the forces that affect world hunger, this group of programs offers an excellent start.

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