Currently browsing posts about: World hunger

Oct 16 2013

Today is World Food Day: Perspectives

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has organized a series of Perspectives on World Food Day.

Mine is titled “A Push for Sustainable Food Systems.“  It’s illustrated with cartoons from Eat, Drink, Vote.

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From my perspective as a public health nutritionist, this year’s theme for World Food Day,Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition, seems especially appropriate.  Food insecurity and obesity are the most important nutrition problems in the world today.  Each affects roughly a billion people.  Each is a consequence of food system inequities.

Most countries produce or import enough food for the needs of their populations, but do not always ensure that it is equitably distributed.  Because many people lack resources to obtain adequate food on a reliable basis, hunger is a matter of politics.  Political conflict, insufficient responses to natural disasters, corrupt institutions, and inequalities in income and education constitute the “root” causes of malnutrition.  It’s not enough to distribute food to hungry people.  Governments should take actions to redress system inequities that lead to hunger in the first place.

Similarly, the causes of obesity go beyond the poor food choices of individuals.  Obesity is one result of an industrialized and unsustainable food system that treats agricultural products as commodities, uses most of these products  to feed animals or produce fuel for automobiles, provides little support to farmers who produce fruits and vegetables, and provides endless incentives for overproduction.

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The result is an overabundant food system dependent on the sales of meat and obesity-promoting snack and beverage products, and on marketing such products to populations in low-income countries. Much evidence confirms that individuals find it difficult to resist food marketing pressures on their own.  If countries are to prevent rising rates of obesity, governments must intervene.

The extent to which governments should be involved in the food choices of individuals is a matter of debate.  Making sure people are fed is one function of government; another is promoting public health.  Because research demonstrates profound effects of food marketing on personal dietary choices, governments can set policies that make healthful choices the easier choices such as promoting fruit and vegetable production and setting limits on marketing practices, not least to reduce health care costs.

Whether the world can continue to produce enough food to meet growing population needs is questionable, but the need for sustainable food systems is not.  Governments must support food systems that provide farmers and workers with a reasonable standard of living, replenish soil nutrients, conserve natural resources, and minimize pollution and greenhouse gases—and promote health.  Governments and corporations must go beyond perceptions of food as a fungible commodity to understand food as an essential source of life, and firmly link agricultural policies to those for health, labor, and the environment. If politicians cannot commit to policies to reverse global warming, then ordinary citizens will have to take action.  And they are rising to the occasion, as exemplified by today’s burgeoning food movement.

Oct 17 2012

The latest dismal report on world hunger

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has just released the latest iteration of its annual report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012.

It’s bottom line estimate: 870 million people in the world are hungry, 852 million of them in developing countries.

The good news is that this figure represents a decline of 132 million people from 1990-92 to 2010-12, or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world’s population.  In developing countries, the decline is from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent.

The not-so-good news: Since 2007-2008, global progress in reducing hunger has slowed and leveled off, and hunger in Africa has gotten worse.

Much of the press attention to the report yawned at the major message but instead focused on errors in the previous estimates, which were higher.

the projections were wrong. They were calculated using figures from non-U.N. sources that were fed into the U.N.’s number-crunching model, because FAO was expected to quickly come up with an estimate of how many people might go hungry from the dual crises of high food prices and the global downturn

The UN bases its hunger projections on figures on population, food supply, food losses, dietary energy requirements, food distribution, and other factors.

The report contains other bad news.  While 870 million people remain hungry, the world confronts a double burden of malnutrition: 1.4 billion people are dealing with the consequences of overweight and obesity.

Focusing on the need to address world hunger Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development, Imperial College, London writes in the Huffington Post:

as I set out in my latest book One billion hungry: can we feed the world?, I believe there is reason for optimism. Yes we can feed the world, but only if we accept that agricultural development is the best route to achieving sustainable economic growth in developing countries, and achieve an agriculture that is highly productive, stable, resilient and equitable.

Sounds like a good plan to me.  Let’s get busy.

Jan 12 2012

Some thoughts on high rates of child malnutrition in India

The New York Times reported a shocking statistic yesterday: about 42% of children under age 5 living in India suffer from malnutrition and are “wasted” (low weight for height). 

The figure comes from the Hungama survey of 73,000 Indian households conducted by the Naandi Foundation.  It reports an even more troubling statistic: nearly 59% of Indian children under age 5 are “stunted” (low height for age).

The Hangama report holds one hopeful note.  Rates of childhood malnutrition in India fell by 20% during the past 7 years.

But have they? 

According to a more detailed analysis in today’s New York Times

Despite the recent boom years of the 1990s and 2000s, there has been little improvement in overall nutrition in India, according to United Nations data. About 20 percent of India’s over 1 billion population remained “undernourished” during that time, meaning their “food intake regularly provides less than their minimum energy requirements.” The most recent”Global Hunger Index” shows that two-thirds of the 122 developing countries studied had reduced hunger levels in recent years, but that hunger levels in India have increased.

Ending malnutrition is a matter of political will.  If India wanted to address childhood malnutrition in any serious way, it could. 

How?  Feeding programs are emergency measures.  Long-term solutions require institution of social programs:

  • Promote breastfeeding,
  • Educate and empower women
  • Build toilets
  • Clean up water supplies
  • Eradicate worms
  • Reduce income inequality    

Two recent books summarize the research behind these ideas and explain what causes widespread hunger and what to do about it.  They make it clear that eradicating childhood malnutrition should be a first priority for any government:

  • Olivier De Schutter and Kaitlin Cordes, editors: Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in the Era of Globalisation (Studies in International Law), Hart, 2011.
  • Per Pinstrup-Anderson P and Derrill D. Watson II: Food Policy for Development Countries: The Role of Government in Global, National, and Local Food Systems, Cornell University Press, 2011.  
Aug 10 2011

Q and A: Hydroponics

Q.  I would love to hear what you think about hydroponic food. My instincts tell me that organic soil is full of life and traces of nutrients and elements we don’t fully understand and here we have another frankenfood that is scientifically derived.

A.  Frankenfood is too strong but I’m basically with you on this one.  I don’t get hydroponics.  Obviously scientists have figured out enough about plant nutrient requirements to keep them alive in water and nutrient broth but what’s the point?  Soil works really well and is bound to contain substances we don’t even know about.  These may even influence taste.

Chefs say even the best of hydroponic vegetables, according to a recent New York Times article, are not considered serious replacements for field-grown lettuces because they can’t reproduce the flavor.

My suspicion?  People who like hydroponics don’t like getting their hands dirty (but isn’t that half the fun?).

 

Sep 15 2010

This is good news? U.N. says 925 million people are chronically hungry

The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program released their most recent figures on world hunger yesterday.

The good news: the number is 98 million fewer than in 2009, and below one billion.

The bad news: it is 925 million, a level the U.N. considers “unacceptable.”

In conjunction with the U.N. report, Oxfam America has released one of its own: “Halving Hunger: Still Possible.”  

Oxfam issued a press release on its report:

Ten years after world leaders committed to halve world hunger by 2015, little progress has been made to reduce the number of people who go to sleep hungry, and many hard-won achievements have been undone by the global economic, food and fuel crises….In the ten years since the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] were agreed, the proportion of hungry people in the world has decreased by just half a percent – from 14 percent in 2000 to 13.5 per cent today.

Gawain Kripke, Policy Director for Oxfam America , said:

A new global food crisis could explode at any time unless governments tackle the underlying causes of hunger, which include decades of under investment in agriculture, climate change, and unfair trade rules that make it difficult for families to earn a living through farming.

The report says that “with a coherent and coordinated global response, halving hunger is still possible.”  That, however will require an increase in aid of $75, at least half from developed nations.

Hunger, it says, “is not inevitable; we can end it if we choose to.”

But will we choose to?  Doubtful.   The Senate is holding up action on the food safety bill because it is estimated to cost a little over $1 billion, and at least one senator thinks that’s too much to pay for a safe food supply, let alone making sure that people have enough to eat.

Here’s what today’s New York Times has to say about all this.  Oxfam is right.  Hunger is not inevitable.  But why don’t we have the political will to do something about it?

Oct 16 2009

World Food Day

Today is World Food Day and I am in Rome giving the 6th Annual George McGovern World Food Day lecture at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  The lecture is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.

World Food Day marks the founding of FAO on October 16, 1945.  I love the FAO motto: Fiat Panis (let there be bread).  Its job is to make sure the world gets fed adequately.

FAO has just released its 2009 edition of “The State of Food Insecurity in the World.”  It contains nothing but bad news: hunger is on the rise, the global economic crisis is making things worse, with people in developing countries hit hardest.

The George McGovern lecture is in honor of the former U.S. Senator (Dem-South Dakota) and presidential candidate who has had a distinguished history of anti-hunger efforts as director of the Food for Peace program, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, and U.N. global ambassador on hunger.

I am most familiar with his work as chair of the Senate Select Committee from 1968-1977.   This committee greatly expanded food assistance programs and then developed the first federal guidelines for chronic disease prevention: Dietary Goals for the U.S. In Food Politics, I describe the work of this committee and the way it improved the safety net and transformed nutrition education in the United States.

It is a great honor to be giving a lecture in his honor.