Tonight, and every night, 828 million people will go to bed hungry. A further 49 million people in 49 countries teeter on famine’s edge. That is just the tip: 58 percent of Africans, 41 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean, 25 percent of Asians, 13 percent from Oceania, and 8 percent of Europeans and North Americans are food insecure –they are uncertain about what, how, and when they get to eat.
Meanwhile, some 30 percent of children aged under five years are stunted, and many more are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. A third of the women worldwide are anaemic. These are mostly the symptoms and consequences of poverty.
Conversely, one billion people are obese, but a considerable proportion of them are also among the poor. They go for energy-dense staples and cheap fatty foods with minimum nutritional value because a daily healthy diet consisting of 2,100 balanced calories can be five times more expensive. The result is explosive growth in diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular and renal conditions, and mental health dysfunctions. We have already learnt that obese people are three times more likely to be hospitalised for Covid-19.
Our world has just topped eight billion inhabitants, but some four billion are eating too little or too much or eating the wrong stuff.
These are horrendous statistics, and the trend has worsened, with the Food Price Index of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) currently standing at 136, compared to 98 in 2020.
The Covid pandemic added to food insecurity. But the real problem lies with the various armed conflicts, which have squeezed food supplies. One-third of all food-insecure people are mired amidst the 130 conflicts raging worldwide as we go through the dangerous period since World War II. Global grain supply disruption caused by the Russia-Ukraine war provides a stark illustration.
Future prospects are alarming because of the relentless progression of climate change. The global warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius is increasingly infeasible, and planetary tipping points such as glacier melting and sea level rises are very likely. The devastating consequences for food security are exemplified by Pakistan’s floods, Somalia’s drought, and frequent, ferocious disasters elsewhere.
The short-term solution is food aid. But the World Food Programme will be lucky to get two-thirds of the $20 billion sought for next year. And to get to ‘zero hunger’ by 2030, as per the Sustainable Development Goals, it needs double that amount. There is an inevitable – and degrading – competition between nations jostling on the Global Hunger Index. Who will get enough assistance this month, and who will starve?
Despite all the good efforts of humanitarians to share limited resources equitably, the inherent unfairness is self-evident in aid arrangements that are akin to a random lottery for life dependent on the uncertain mercy of strangers.
We must do better to reduce aid dependency and create sustainable agrifood systems. Although this needs an eye-watering investment of $265 billion annually, it is not an impossible sum in a world economy projected to reach $110 trillion in 2023.
Here’s what we can do to tackle this problem:
1- Make it a priority
To start with, states must approach food as a strategic matter – akin to national defence – rather than simply on development or charitable considerations. Nowadays, food is often used as a weapon of war and should be handled accordingly, even in peacetime. That means, for example, strategic food reserves, food intelligence capabilities, threats-and-risks analyses, and balanced policies for food resilience are founded on nationally-determined criteria and not globalised norms where one size is supposed to fit all.
2- Waste less food
Second, there is an obvious benefit to reducing food wastage. Currently, a third of food is lost and spoiled in the food chain, amounting to 24 percent of available food calories, costing $230 billion.
Apart from depleting natural resources, including water and forests, food waste generates 6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Pests such as locusts and bad weather are partly responsible, but much is avoidable through consumer education and improvement in how we store and transport food.
3- Help the small farmer
Third, small-scale farmers that produce 35 per cent of the world’s food from just 12 percent of all agricultural land should get priority adaptation funding to become more sustainably productive and resilient against climate change. This would do more than anything else to create self-sufficiency and reduce dependency on food imports in the vast consumer regions of China, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
4- Support local agro-ecosystem
Fourth, in many low-income nations that are food aid dependent, small businesses around local food production already contribute 70 percent of the GDP. So, more research and technological innovation could grow them in an eco-sensitive manner that promotes biodiversity and improves soil and water systems, thereby enabling major productivity gains.
5- Grow it closer to the market
Fifth, specific actions should bring consumers and producers geographically closer to reduce “food miles”, not just to cut cost and carbon footprint but also incorporate the learning from Covid-19 management that long logistics chains increase vulnerability to unreliable suppliers elsewhere.
Such proximity farming means greater urban agriculture. By 2050, two-thirds of us will live in cities: why should food not be produced there? Some technologies already exist for vertical farming and hydroponics. Greener urban development policies could also reduce carbon emissions and make cities more harmonious.
6- Quality over quantity
Six, while the obvious problems of food availability have been well-trained, quality is often overlooked. The Global Dietary Database indicates that the global nutritional value of what we eat is modest – scoring an aggregate of 40 points out of 100. Food security that optimises human development is not just about quantity but also quality.
7- Diversify the food basket
Seven, as there are limits to raising the productivity of popular crops, diversification is essential. There are some 50,000 edible plants, but two-thirds of our calories come from just three: wheat, maize, and rice. Of course, dietary habits going back millennia are difficult to change, and our daily bread or rice bowl has deep cultural meaning.
But necessity dictates adaptation. Cassava, sorghum, millet, teff, and sweet potatoes, for example, are useful substitutes and healthier as part of a diverse diet. Under-utilised legumes and small grains could also be more climate resilient through suitably-engineered seeds. A dietary revolution will be a central aspect of building food security.
8-Think of better ways to distribute aid
Eight, even with full food security, food aid will be needed for the most vulnerable, especially when disaster strikes. But moving truckloads of primary foodstuffs and physically doling out rations to long lines of starving people is costly and inefficient. If markets are working as they mostly do, even in crisis contexts, cash is much better and nowadays conveniently available in digital or voucher forms. This gives recipients choice and dignity in their hour of greatest need.
9- Make food part of the social security net
Nine, better still, would be to include food and nutrition entitlements within universal social protection systems not just during normal times but particularly in times of crisis. Currently, less than half the world’s population is covered that way. Foreign assistance – especially food– could be channelled through national safety nets.
10- Involve the private sector
Finally, all countries should have multi-sectoral food policies and strategies in pursuit of a common national mission, with practical plans that involve the private sector and other stakeholders.
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