While world leaders meet in opulent settings to discuss famine and poverty around the globe, it is ironic that we regularly see articles like ‘Four famines mean 20 million may starve in the next six months’.1 Every living thing needs food, water and oxygen to grow; a common introduction to science for kindergarten children. Why then, is a need so basic not met for every individual on this planet? Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria are experiencing famine now while many African and Middle Eastern nations are rapidly spiralling into severe food insecurity. The road to food security will only become more challenging as the world population is expected to increase to over 9 billion by 20501. Famine does not only mean that millions of people starve to death, it inadvertently leads to a cascade of health issues. Kidney failure and cardiac arrhythmia due to severe dehydration, electrolyte imbalance resulting in a shock to the nervous system and atrophy of skeletal muscle are just a few of the myriad of health problems caused by starvation 2. These problems put a strain on the healthcare system, resulting in increased costs and poorer access to healthcare for people who are already deprived of it.
In order to fight famine and eradicate hunger, member states of the United Nations have met on several occasions to ratify the Millennium Development Goals, Rio+20 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to display their commitment in achieving these goals. It is promising to see the unity and solidarity of nations towards common goals. However, this is just the first step; it is important to make specific commitments to enhanced agricultural production and food and nutrition security as a vital move towards eradicating hunger. Multiple short term goals need to be set as stepping stones before reaching the final goal. Proposed actions and measurable steps should be reviewed and re-evaluated annually to assess global progress. Challenges faced must be discussed transparently to facilitate sharing of ideas and resources among nations. A standard solution is ineffective since each nation has unique challenges and access to resources. Food security can be achieved when “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. The specific commitments should include the following:
Commitment to research and development
Tackling hunger and malnutrition needs to include the growth of nutritional crops such as fruits and vegetables along with the staple food such as rice, maize and wheat. Research on creating the right balance is essential for alleviating malnutrition. It is also important to study soil health to ensure that the land is in optimal condition to support the growth of crops to its full potential. In many parts of the world, the yield is less than 50% of its potential,3 which means that our world food production could double if what can be produced, is produced. A major challenge is the damage caused by unfamiliar pests and diseases, which attack crops and hence, output. Invasive species result in a loss of $1 trillion to the global economy,4 which calls for risk analysis of pests and methods to overcome them. Genetically modified seeds can be designed to be pest resistant and resilient to unpredictable weather, providing higher yield. These seeds should be widely distributed at low/subsidized costs, similar to that of regular seeds. High costs would be unsustainable for farmers, creating greater barriers of implementation. Governments should collaborate with private sectors and incentivize them to invest heavily in agriculture because investment and R&D in agriculture gives the highest and most guaranteed returns. Budget needs to be allocated for R&D, while open research should be encouraged to prevent duplication of efforts and a waste of resources.
Commitment to effective information dissemination, involvement of local leaders and women:
It can be challenging for governments to implement policies locally and mobilize people involved in agriculture. Trusted community leaders must take ownership of agriculture in their communities. They will manage information dissemination to farmers on soil health, crop variety and technological advancements to enhance crop yield. It is essential for information to flow freely from the farmers to their local leaders as well so that they are aware of the challenges and needs of the farmers in their communities. Local leaders are indispensable in convincing hesitant farmers to adopt new tools and technology for increased productivity. An advantage of developing nations is the boom in mobile technologies, which can be harnessed to deliver information, overcoming language or literacy barriers. Local leaders should encourage individuals in their communities to take responsibility for their nutrition and grow their own vegetables on communal land or in their backyards. It is especially important to garner the leadership of women in these campaigns as women prioritize families and their well-being. Training local leaders and women is a critical step towards food security.
Commitment to reduced wastage:
Insufficient storage facilities results in wastage of 30-50% of food produced globally.5,6 Reducing food wastage by the U.S, India and China alone could feed 413 million people annually.7 These statistics are jarring. Biggest contributors of food waste must have internationally agreed targets set, which, will ensure their accountability towards waste reduction. Governments need to show the development of appropriate storage spaces and transportation to minimize wastage. 40% of fruits and vegetables are discarded because they appear ‘ugly’ and do not meet retailers’ standards, although quality and safety is not compromised.8 Re-introducing these nutritious products into the market will reduce food price and enhance food accessibility. We cannot afford to pick food only after they qualify in our mental beauty pageants when millions of people go hungry each day.
The global disparity:
Food security is made up of a complex web of issues. There are many other factors that need to be incorporated in order to achieve food security. It is bewildering to see that some countries are experiencing famine while on the other end of the spectrum several nations are suffering from the obesity epidemic.9 Obesity, caused by excessive food consumption with little energy output, kills three times more people than hunger does, claiming three million lives annually.9 Obesity is not only an issue of overeating but also caused by the consumption of cheaper, unhealthy and high calorie food since nutritious food is simply unaffordable. As a result, countries that experience starvation has also seen a rise in obesity resulting in the ‘double burden of malnutrition’.10
That is not to say that famine deserves any less of our attention. These statistics have shed light on the highly overlooked but obvious inequality across the globe which, makes food distribution severely imbalanced. Research on food and nutrition is absolutely critical at this stage to understand the causes of- and solutions for the imbalance of nutrition across the globe. This is not an individual challenge of each country but rather a collective global concern.
Image obtained from: https://borgenproject.org/hunger-v-obesity-problem-bigger/
Hence, we must commit to fulfilling the SDGs. All of the 17 goals ratified by member nations of the UN are interconnected and equally important to enable a sustainable and healthy world by 2030. For instance, hunger and poverty is also a result of environmental degradation- unexpected droughts, floods, soil degradation, destruction of pollinating insects are some of the factors contributing to food insecurity. 10 Such turmoil would then raise the barriers to education as it spirals down the priority list when stomachs are empty. It is therefore, our imperative to act on all of the SDGs with strong conviction and not just each SDG in isolation.
- Miles, T. (2017, February 16). Four famines mean 20 million may starve in the next six months. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-famine-idUSKBN15V0ZO
- Peele, L. (n.d.). Different Effects and Symptoms of Starvation Mode. Retrieved from http://starvemodereview.com/effects-starvation-mode/, STARVE MODE REVIEW
- Pradhan, P., Fischer, G., van Velthuizen, H., Reusser, D. E., & Kropp, J. P. (2015). Closing yield gaps: How sustainable can we be?. PloS one, 10(6), e0129487.
- Keatinge, D. (2014, October 16). 5 things we can do to better ensure food security. Retrieved from https://www.devex.com/news/5-things-we-can-do-to-better-ensure-food-security-84565
- Escaler, M., & Teng, P. (2011, June). ‘Mind the Gap’: Reducing Waste and Losses in the Food Supply Chain. Retrieved from http://www3.ntu.edu.sg/rsis/nts/HTML-Newsletter/Insight/NTS-Insight-jun-1101.html
- An Overview of Global Food Losses and Waste. (2011, November 25). Retrieved from http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publication/on-overview-of-global-food-losses-and-waste/
- West, P. C., Gerber, J. S., Engstrom, P. M., Mueller, N. D., Brauman, K. A., Carlson, K. M., … & Siebert, S. (2014). Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment. Science, 345(6194), 325-328.
- Royte, E. (2016, March). How ‘Ugly’ Fruits and Vegetables Can Help Solve World Hunger. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/03/global-food-waste-statistics/
- Adams, S. (2012, December 13). Obesity killing three times as many as malnutrition. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/9742960/Obesity-killing-three-times-as-many-as-malnutrition.html, The Telegraph
- Conor, S. (2015, July 11). World entering era of global food insecurity with malnutrition and obesity side by side within countries, says leading food expert. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-entering-era-of-global-food-insecurity-with-malnutrition-and-obesity-side-by-side-within-10382877.html, INDEPENDENT