Not everyone has access to all kinds of food, where at the beginning of time, access was determined by topography and skill. For instance, forest dwellers couldn’t farm and relied on hunting and primarily consumed protein. In sedentary communities, crops thrived. Later on, we started cultivating and gathered our food, where our diet constituted mostly of carbohydrates. Consumption in arid deserts, in coastal communities, and in caves was similarly limited to the natural bounty of its specific, unique geography. Gradually, new varieties of crops along with new techniques in pottery and metal craftsmanship gave rise to sophisticated methods of preparing food, including baking and so on. The advent of the ‘chef’ however, a master of culinary skill, coincided with the beginning of the class structure, when rulers and elitists couldn’t spare time to cook and when barter across communities led to an extraordinary mingling and blend of food items, turning cooking from a necessary act of survival to an art form.

Today, access to food has little to do with topography and skill and almost everything to do with economic well-being. Essentially, what we eat, and what we choose not to eat, differentiates us. There are cases in recent history though, when topography, skill and economic well-being, together influenced the European world, particularly in the time between the First and Second World War. The United Kingdom at the time imported a majority of its food supply to meet the nutritional needs of 50 million people. In 1916, facing severe shortages, food was rationed and more than two courses for lunch and three courses for dinner were banned in restaurants. Regardless of class, color, or creed, essential food items (including butter, margarine, lard, meat and sugar) were leveled through ration cards. Historians suggest this benefited the overall health of the country because vitamins were equitably distributed amongst the people and wastage was almost non-existent.

The most intriguing study on rationing at the time, one that attempted to test the boundaries of UK’s internal food supply capacity, was conducted by a Dietitian, Elsie Widdowson, and Professor of Experimental Medicine, Robert McCance, at the University of Cambridge. To test whether Britain could survive the war without food supplies from abroad, the two scientists, along with other volunteers, limited their weekly food intake to an egg, a pound of meat, four ounces of fish and seven pints of milk. The group also had access to unlimited amounts of potatoes, other locally produced vegetables and wholemeal bread. The study allayed fears of a food drought or severe nutritional loss, in that it reported only two harmless consequences of the aforementioned diet: a slow rate of ingestion and an abundance of flatulence. Fears of methane poisoning aside, the point that is most relevant here is that in England’s darkest hour of food insecurity, equitable food distribution enhanced overall health, almost eliminated wastage and provided the government an opportunity to test subsistence in the absence of international aid.

Not all participants of the First and Second World War managed food insecurity, as well as the UK did. Ships carrying food supplies were specifically targeted and countless lives succumbed to starvation. There simply wasn’t enough food for subsistence and battles over dwindling stocks resulted in greater casualties. In the backdrop of food shortages that began before the war broke out, hunger was driving people to mix unlikely food items, which coincidentally led to a culinary innovation, the modern day tomato based pizza.

In the late 1880s, bread was a relatively abundant and affordable food item in Italy. At the same time, tomatoes, imported from the US, became a topping for those who could not afford the more expensive cheese to garnish their bread with. Apparently, this blend of bread and tomatoes originated in Naples and soon afterwards it spread across other cities, with minor variations catering to changing palate. Pizza continued to evolve since then and proof of this is in its rather explosive global variety. Puritan pizzerias in Naples, established in the late 1800s, however, refuse to recognize anything beyond the Marinara and the Margherita; the only two recipes, they feel, that remain true to their earliest predecessors. Yet another, odd fruit of food insecurity.

Now let us take a brief look at Pakistan. We are the offspring of the Indus, where our mainstay is agriculture. We are amongst the top ten producers of chickpea, apricot, cotton, milk, date, onion, orange, wheat, mango and rice in the world. We are fighting, yes, on our borders and within the country, but none of that have disrupted our food supply. Why then were innocent Pakistani children in Tharparkar unable to fight famine? Why did our government fail to fill the void of rain fed crops?

Javed Jabbar, Pakistan’s former Information Minister, attributes the loss of these lives to ‘negligence, apathy, corruption, avoidable shortages and poor governance’. He points out that ‘corrupt practices in relief delivery provide more benefits to the few, often neglecting the many’. And so, one thing that is not well known, but should be, is that people don’t die from hunger, they die from poverty. They die because people in power will even steal the ration to fight famine, an easily avoidable, man-made insecurity. What is even worse, in our case, there is no ‘odd fruit’ to ease the sting of this terrible crime.