As is thoughtfully articulated in Ignacio Trueba and Andrew MacMillan’s “How to End Hunger in Times of Crisis,” food plays a central role in everyone’s lives, to the extent that what and how much a person eats has a fundamental impact on their quality of life and well-being — their health, how long they live, whether they can learn well at school and can get a good job.
We now see extreme divergences in what people eat, with both extremes facing ill health, whether from being hungry or from over-consuming food. This should be worrying for governments, not just for the health and livelihoods of individuals— but because it also has huge human rights, economic and environmental implications.
People who are hungry are effectively denied the right to adequate food. But they are also excluded, through their weakness and consequent lack of income, from contributing to the growth and development of their countries and from playing their full role in society. This not only holds back development but, as we have seen recently in a number of countries, becomes a huge source of frustration that spills over into unrest and violence.
The production and consumption of food also has major environmental impacts, and is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that drive the processes of climate change.
Chronic hunger as well as malnutrition, caused especially by shortages of protein, vitamin A, iodine and iron, impair both physical and mental development. Thus, if children are born underweight or have inadequate nutrition when very young, they will never be able to grow and learn to their full potential. According to the World Food Programme, the period between a child’s conception and second birthday — their first 1,000 days — provides the best window of opportunity for interventions to address hunger and malnutrition.
Unfortunately, a large part of current food output comes from farming and fishing practices that are damaging the natural resources and rural societies that are needed eventually for growing food for a population expected to rise to nine billion by 2050.
One reason for using destructive production methods has been that most governments have adopted food policies that have the implicit goal of keeping prices low for consumers.
This has been good news for low-income urban households but tragic for rural producers. More seriously, it has the side-effect of subsidizing middle and high income households, providing incentives for over-consumption and large-scale food waste, as the United Nations reports roughly one-third of all food produced in the world is never consumed.
These low food prices have only been possible because the costs of environmental and social damage have been ignored and not paid, whether by producers or consumers. Many of the current crises stem from these policies, which have also led to gross under-investment in farm assets, rural infrastructure, and agricultural research because the financial and economic returns have been relatively unattractive.
The biggest mistake that we can make is to address these challenges separately. To see how they can be resolved, it is essential to examine, from a multidisciplinary perspective, the issues that underlie the crises. The amount of issues to be addressed are too numerous to list but include policy coordination across borders and among government, industry and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) community as trade-offs will need to be made in areas such as scarce resource allocation (land and water) and obesity (cheap calories vs. nutrition).
Substantial, coordinated investment will need to be made in infrastructure and education to curb unacceptable amounts of food waste while emphasizing nutrition.
In sum, to ensure a world where hunger does not overwhelm society, bold leadership will be necessary to preserve civility in the global neighborhood.
Jeffrey D. Klein has been the President and CEO of The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN), an international organization of food banks working in 22 current and prospective countries, since January of 2011. GFN (www.foodbanking.org), whose mission is to alleviate world hunger, supports food banks and food bank networks where they exist and works collaboratively with government, the private sector, and civil society to create them in communities where they are needed. Mr. Klein spent the first 30 years of his career financing, investing in, and selling private and public companies in the United States, Latin America, and Asia. Mr. Klein was a Managing Director for 14 years with Equity Group Investments (EGI), Sam Zell’s private investment firm, where he was instrumental in developing and implementing growth strategies in a broad range of industries, and prepared various portfolio companies for stock exchange listings in the United States, Mexico, and Brazil.
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