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An opinion article by FAO-Director General José Graziano da Silva

Winning the war against hunger
By José Graziano da Silva
Originally published on 03 September 2014 by NST

Malaysia’s social and economic development has been remarkable. The development of excellent infrastructure and the move to becoming a major exporter is impressive.

Malaysia has also developed a modern and dynamic agricultural sector and has led the way for many technological innovations including development in Islamic finance systems to enhance investment in agriculture.

These advances are reflected in the undernourishment rate in the country. I am pleased to recall that in 2013 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recognized Malaysia as one of only 15 developing countries that has held hunger rates below five percent since at least 1990.

The gains made by Malaysia and other countries are proof that we can defeat hunger. This should inspire us for a final effort to reach the Millennium Development Goal hunger target of reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger between 1990 and 2015. Our deadline is fast approaching but can still be met.

However, while meeting the MDG target is important,  it’s not enough. With hunger, the only acceptable number is zero and, today,  more than 800 million people still suffer from undernourishment. Two-thirds of them live in Asia, including nearly 65 million  in Southeast Asia.

So, while we make a final push to halve hunger by 2015, we also need to look ahead and be even bolder in our ambitions: reducing hunger and malnutrition is an important first step, but our true goal is to end hunger in the world. This is necessary to meet all the international development goals we have committed to as a global community and the cornerstone of the future we want. We simply cannot call development sustainable while millions of people are left behind.

More and more countries in the Asia-Pacific region are committing to this goal and, in 2013, the region launched its Zero Hunger Challenge, in response to the call made by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference. Malaysia has also expressed a willingness to tackle food loss and waste at national level, following the successful launch of the regional Save Food Asia-Pacific Campaign. Malaysia has the opportunity to give a strong contribution to these efforts as it will host the FAO Asia-Pacific Regional Conference in 2016.

Regional commitments are an important support to national action, but efforts to promote food security need to be government-led and locally owned. Many actors can and should be part of this process, including family farmers.

In Malaysia and across the Asia-Pacific region there is increasing awareness of the role that family farmers play in eradicating hunger and conserving natural resources. We have much to learn about this group that includes smallholders and medium scale farmers,  indigenous peoples, traditional communities, fisher folk, pastoralists, collectors and many others. In recognition of their relevance, the United Nations named 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.

Paradoxically, while family farmers are the main food producers in many developing countries, they are also among the most vulnerable to hunger, especially subsistence farmers. Our efforts need to change this reality. Experiences in many countries show that family farmers respond well with increased sustainable production if the appropriate policy environment is effectively put in place. 

We must also recognize that while fighting hunger remains our biggest challenge, malnutrition manifests itself in many ways. Hunger affects some 12 percent of the world’s population - or nearly one in eight people, an estimated 162 million children  below the age of five  are stunted, 51 million wasted or acutely malnourished  and two billion people suffer one or more micronutrient deficiencies. But at the same time, 500 million people are obese.

The socio-economic cost of malnutrition is high: up to five percent of  global income due to loss of productivity and health care. All this makes malnutrition a public issue that needs to be tackled by a global effort. That is why FAO and the World Health Organization are jointly promoting the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) from 19-21 November, in Rome.

There is still much we can and should do to meet the food security, nutrition levels and sustainable development challenges we face. And while countries need to find their own ways forward, there are many experiences that can be shared. The successes of Malaysia and other countries should serve as an inspiration as we move forward together to ensure a future of food security for all and hunger for none.