Food security is a challenge for the future
Originally published 19 September 2013 by L’Osservatore Romano
Throughout history, thanks to the inventiveness of farmers and pastoralists over millennia and, more recently, to the creativity of scientists and engineers, food production has largely kept pace with the needs of the rapidly growing number of people in the world.
Since the end of the Second World War, while population has tripled, food availability per person has risen by over 40%. This is one of the great achievements of mankind during my lifetime, but it tends to go unnoticed. However, rising food production and waste are putting huge stresses on the natural resources – water, soils, forests, oceans - needed by future generations to meet their food needs.
Even now, in spite of an overall abundance of food supplies, combined with worldwide access to real-time communications and a highly efficient global food distribution system, the spectre of famine and hunger continues to haunt humanity. Just three years ago, millions of people were driven from their homes in Somalia by the threat of famine, and about 260,000 people, many of them children, needlessly died of starvation.
We must do everything we can – in the short and the long term – to prevent such a horrific tragedy from ever happening again. A much more diffuse but less visible type of hunger still blights the lives of nearly 870 million of our fellow humans. Most of the chronically hungry live in developing countries but millions are also unable to feed their families adequately in some of the world’s richest nations. It is a slow death. Their hunger robs them of all the opportunities and pleasures that those of us who are well fed have come to take for granted.
The concept of food security – that everyone should have enough to eat to be able to lead a healthy life – is central not only to Christianity but is also fundamental to many other religions. One might have expected that the fact that so many people are denied regular access to their “daily bread” would trigger a massive wave of indignation and action by all people who proclaim the need to “love thy neighbour as thyself”, but sadly it has not yet done so.
There have been many fine acts of charity but a failure to get to grips with the underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition on the scale required. Perhaps this is because long-term hunger and malnutrition don’t hit the headlines, and most of us have no idea that they are now the biggest causes of premature mortality, especially amongst children. This general ignorance of the scale and consequences of hunger is compounded by a widespread perception that there is no ready solution to the problem. This could not be further from the truth.
In most cases, hunger and malnutrition are a consequence of extreme poverty, which prevents families from being able to buy or produce enough food of adequate quality. This perpetuates itself because under-fed people cannot do a full day’s work or study successfully and their voices and needs are not heard by the community at large: they are trapped in a situation from which escape by their own means is nearly impossible.
A sustainable solution for hunger, therefore, needs to take into account that its main cause today is the lack of access to food, rather than insufficient production. Interventions should be based on applying the concept of the human right to food. This way, fighting hunger is not charity or dependent solely on a government´s ephemeral good will.
Action to ensure adequate access to food should include effective targeted social protection measures. There is growing evidence that the best measures includeregular cash transfers to the poorest families to enable them to bridge their food gap as well as locally sourced school meals programmes, combined with support to small-scale farming. Sceptics claim that cash transfers create dependencies, breed corruption and are too costly.
Many countries are, however, showing that they enable the hungry to stand on their own feet; that corruption can be minimised through greater social participation and accountability and by electronic transfer systems that avoid intermediaries; that they stimulate small-scale farmers to respond with rising production to the new sources of food demand; and that they will pay for themselves by creating local economic growth. If, as has been done in Brazil’s Zero Hunger Programme, funds are channelled mainly through adult female family members, they will be used prudently and the status of women in their families and communities will be greatly enhanced. Most of the nearly 40 developing countries that have already met the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015 have adopted such approaches in comprehensive food security programmes, that include interventions ranging from social protection to support to small-scale producers.
There is an added value when these two ends are linked, for instance, through local food purchases by cash transfer beneficiaries and to supply school meals. They lead to fast reductions in childhood mortality and stunting, better school attendance and performance, greater adult workforce participation, and improved income equality.
This is not to imply that that there is no need to continue to expand food availability to meet future needs. To the extent that the extra food production comes from small-scale producers in developing countries this can become an important driver of broad-based rural economic growth and so help to cut hunger in rural communities in which 70% of the world’s food insecure people are concentrated.
Other important challenges are to cut waste at all levels of the food system – at least one third of all food produced is lost or thrown away; to ensure adequate nutrition for expectant and lactating mothers and their infant children; to promote more healthy eating habits as disposable incomes rise, and to induce a rapid transition towards sustainable food production systems that raise output while conserving natural resources and slowing the processes of climate change.
Changing the way the global food system is managed so as to achieve these outcomes is vital for the future of humanity. But the immediate aim, not just for governments but for all of us, must be to see that all people now on earth can enjoy their daily bread and lead a full and decent life. The cost is small but the benefits will be vast. We must each play our part in this.