15 May 2003, Rome -- Despite abundant natural resources, sub-Saharan Africa is not an easy place to be a farmer. Droughts, floods and other disasters regularly wreak their havoc, while chronic poverty, social problems, ineffective policies and civil strife can also contribute to food shortages and widespread malnutrition.

But in the last decade, HIV/AIDS has posed an additional challenge to this part of the world, where up to 80 percent of the population depends on small-scale agriculture for their food and livelihood. As the disease continues to kill millions, leaving countless others too sick, too young or too poor to farm and feed themselves, southern Africa is experiencing a new and different kind of crisis—one which is, in turn, creating more opportunities for the virus to spread. This is the message of a new half-hour documentary, Sowing Seeds of Hunger, which was produced by FAO in conjunction with the Television Trust for the Environment (TVE), a London-based independent film company, and airs on BBC World this week.

The film illustrates how the crisis directly affects millions of people living with the disease—many of whom are agricultural workers, like Barnabus and Mary Chabala. Since HIV/AIDS typically strikes during the most productive years—ages 15 to 49—many fields across southern Africa now lay fallow. As a result, families like the Chabalas are not only losing food and cash crops, but also valuable resources, such as livestock and tools. “We had to sell everything we own to buy food and pay for our medical expenses,” explains Mary.

Unfortunately, health services in this part of the world are not meeting the needs of those affected by the epidemic. In such a situation, good nutrition is key. “When people are malnourished, they do not have the strength to withstand infection and AIDS develops that much quicker,” says Karel Callens, an FAO nutrition officer working in the region who provided technical support for the documentary. “Food may not cure HIV/AIDS, but it can help people live longer, more productive lives.”

Food can be prevention

When a person dies from AIDS, hardships often intensify for the family members they leave behind, particularly women and children. In some communities, for instance, a woman may lose her access to land and other assets when her husband passes away. Since food production is frequently a female responsibility, such inheritance practices can affect the entire household. Family members may move away in search of food or work, increasing their chances of contracting HIV—and bringing it back home. For others, commercial sex may be the only option for survival.

In the film, 19-year-old Mercy stands along a busy highway corridor, trying to help support her two younger brothers through prostitution. On a good night, she says, she will have sex with 10 or more men—and for the right price, she will do so without a condom. “What I need is the money,” says Mercy, defiantly.

HIV/AIDS awareness is growing across southern Africa, but as Mercy’s comments illustrate, safe sex is no match for an empty stomach. “People who have adequate access to food are not put in the extreme situation in which they have to sell their bodies in order to eat,” says Marcela Villarreal, the Chief of FAO’s Population and Development Service and the Organization’s focal point for HIV/AIDS issues. “Food security itself can be a means of prevention.”

This puts agriculture in a unique position to help mitigate some of the effects of the AIDS epidemic. Policies that ensure women equal access to land, finance and education are an important step. But FAO is also helping to bring more-immediate measures to the region, like labour-saving practices, such as cultivating crops that require less tilling, and conservation farming, a low-cost method that protects against land degradation by using less water and fertilizer. [Click here to learn more about FAO activities in the field.]

What about the future?

The film features some of the community-based initiatives that have arisen out of the crisis—organizations like Kubatsirana, a volunteer support group working in Mozambique to help deliver home-based care, food and HIV awareness to the people most in need.

But the startling number of children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic—11 million currently living in sub-Saharan Africa alone—shows that much more work needs to be done. “What do you do when you’ve never had nurturing, love or affection growing up as a child because your parents died when you were very young?” asks Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. “Fifteen or 20 years down the road, God alone knows the destabilizing effects of these kids.”

For this reason, many believe the real crisis in southern Africa is yet to come, as these orphans struggle to grow into adults. Fourteen-year-old Sole is one of the luckier ones: Since both his parents died from AIDS three years ago, he has lived with his three younger siblings in a one-room shed, and receives some food assistance from Kubatsirana. But like so many other orphans, Sole’s parents died before they could pass on generations of knowledge about farming, crop varieties and tools to their young children. Without such skills, Sole and his two brothers and sister are unable to produce their own food—or the income to buy it from others—and the prospects for their future become even dimmer.

Wake-up call for the world

Africa may bear the brunt of the current HIV/AIDS crisis—the continent is home to more than 75 percent of the estimated 42 million people living with the disease—but trends elsewhere are equally alarming: India, for instance, is expected to have as many as 25 million HIV-positive people by the end of the decade, while the growth of infection rates is skyrocketing in other parts of Asia, the Caribbean and eastern Europe.

“We hope this film will serve as a wake-up call to the world,” says William D. Clay, Chief of FAO’s Nutrition Programmes Service. “While there needs to be accelerated action to combat the crisis in southern Africa, other countries also need to take aggressive steps now before infection rates reach epidemic proportions. No part of the world is immune from the disease, and FAO urges everyone—health, agriculture and social sectors—to work together to alleviate the impact of HIV/AIDS and stem its transmission.”

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
[email protected]
(+39) 06 570 53105