By Thalif Deen
Stockholm, Sweden, May 28, 2018 (IPS) – The United Nations is continuing to fight a relentless battle to eradicate extreme hunger – particularly in the world’s poorest nations—by 2030.But it is battling against severe odds: an estimated 800 million people still live in hunger— amidst a warning that the world needs to produce at least 50 percent more food to feed the growing 9.0 billion people by 2050—20 years beyond the UN’s goal.
Still, the World Bank predicts that climate change could cut crop yields by more than 25 percent undermining the current attempts to fight hunger.
The hunger crisis has been aggravated by widespread military conflicts – even as the Security Council, the most powerful body at the United Nations, was called upon last month to play a greater role in “breaking the link between hunger and conflict.”
Holding out the prospect of wiping out famine “within our lifetime”, Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the Security Council that almost two-thirds of people living in hunger were in conflict-stricken countries.
He singled out war-devastated Yemen, South Sudan and north-eastern Nigeria, which still faced severe levels of hunger, while the food security situation in Ethiopia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo was “extremely worrying”.
In an interview with IPS, Alessandro Demaio, Chief Executive Officer of the Norway-based EAT, an international NGO engaged in the fight against hunger, said: “At EAT, our mission is a simple but ambitious one: to transform the global food system and enable us to feed a growing global population with healthy food from a healthy planet – leaving no-one behind.”
“We do this by bringing together leading actors from business, science, policy and civil society to close scientific knowledge gaps, translate research into action, scale up solutions, raise awareness and create engagement,” he noted
Excerpts from the interview:
IPS: One of the UN’s 17 SDGs (Goal 2, Zero Hunger) aims to eradicate extreme hunger – particularly in the world’s poorest nations– by 2030. Do you think this is feasible?
Demaio: Food is, in one way or another, linked to all UNs 17 Sustainable Development Goals. As a doctor, it deeply concerns me that more than 800 million people go hungry and more than two billion are overweight or obese, worldwide. These numbers are accompanied by a ballooning epidemic of diet-related and preventable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancers.
While working in Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia at the frontlines, I saw firsthand how hunger has many forms. Undernutrition manifests in children in two key ways: by becoming dangerously thin for their height (wasting), or permanently impeding their growth (stunting). In the other extreme, populations with calorie dense but nutrient-poor diets drive the global burden of overweight and obesity.
There is a deeply unjust disconnect between food availability and quality in different parts of the world. One-third of all food produced gets lost or goes to waste — that’s enough to feed all of the world’s hungry four times over!
But a slow response to increasing pressures from climate change and increasing social inequalities means that not everyone gets access to the right foods. In fact, the United Nations last year declared that hunger, after more than a decade in decline, was on the rise again.
I do believe that we can reach zero hunger by 2030. We have many of the solutions to do so, such as connecting smallholder farmers to markets, removing barriers to trade and boosting food production sustainably.
But we just need the political will to match, and to get stakeholders across sectors, borders, and disciplines to work together and pull in the same direction.
Food is our number one global health challenge and a formidable climate threat. We´re not only producing what makes us sick and destroys the planet, we continue to subsidize it with billions of dollars annually. It is the worlds’ poor and the communities who are least responsible for creating them who are disproportionately affected by these trends.
IPS: What is your agenda to help reform the global food system, including increasing agricultural productivity, and recycling food waste?
Demaio: In our work to reform the global food system, we at EAT connect and partner across science, policy, business and civil society to achieve five urgent and radical transformations by 2050:
1. Shift the world to healthy, tasty and sustainable diets;
2. Realign food system priorities for people and planet;
3. Produce more of the right food, from less;
4. Safeguard our land and oceans; and
5. Radically reduce food losses and waste.
About 1.3 billion tons of food is lost or wasted every year, that’s an estimated one in three mouthfuls of food every day. In poorer nations, this waste generally occurs pre-market and can be part-solved by simple technologies in supply chains including transport, packaging, and refrigeration. Technological interventions such as precision agriculture or investments in post-harvest processes will make huge differences.
In wealthier countries, the majority of waste occurs aftermarket, in supermarkets and in our homes. This is where buying less but more frequently, avoiding impulse buys and taking measures to reduce the “buy one get one free” that incentivize over-purchasing, are all key.
IPS: The world needs to produce at least 50 percent more food to feed the growing 9.0 billion people by 2050. Is this target achievable because climate change can cause devastation to crop yields?
Demaio: The bad news is that modern agriculture doesn’t feed us all and it does not feed us well. The good news is that we have never had a bigger opportunity, more knowledge or the ingenuity and skills to fix it.
Increasing investment in harvesting infrastructure combined with improving access to markets and technology can result in minimizing field losses for farmers in low and middle-income countries, as well as help to pull millions out of poverty. In high-income countries, business and consumers have a transformative role to play in reducing wasted food.
Through new business models, improved production, packaging and educational campaigns, businesses can nudge consumers in the right direction. By nudging better purchasing habits, better evaluations of portion size and improving food preparation techniques, consumers can dive headlong towards a circular food economy. Every pound of food saved from loss or waste will create economic, health and environmental gains.
Through working with remote communities, health professionals, and science and business leaders, I have seen how plant-based dietary trends have fueled a rediscovery of countless crop varieties with promising nutritional and environmental profiles.
With their abilities to deliver ‘more crop per drop’ and withstand unpredictable seasonal changes, diversifying what we grow can help meet local and global nutrition needs. In contrast, gene editing or lab-grown meats offer to increase productivity, nutrition, and tolerance to environmental uncertainties.
Essentially, the future of agriculture doesn’t lie in intensive expansion only — it lies in the harnessing of holistic, precise and tech-savvy methods that enhance the production of more nutritious and more climate-resilient foods.
IPS: How are ongoing military conflicts, particularly in Asia and Africa, affecting the world’s food supplies?
Demaio: Major regional or national conflicts have often profound impacts on food supplies as they disrupt society. Conflicts often originate from a competition over control of the factors of food production, such as land and water.
A growing global population, lower yields and diminished nutrient content of some crops due to changing climatic conditions contribute to increased stress, raising the risk of civil unrest or military conflict. Countries under the greatest stress often have the least capability to adequately respond to civil unrest.
Contexts are important and whether it is climate change, food shortages, water crises, ocean sustainability, or geopolitical conflicts — many or most are interlinked.
An example of this is how ocean acidification and warming impacts fishery yields and the redistribution of already overfished and stressed fish stocks, which can cause new geopolitical tensions. Given that many of these challenges are intertwined, they also present common opportunities for co-mitigation.
IPS: What is the primary goal of the upcoming EAT forum in Stockholm, June 11-12? What’s on the agenda?
Demaio: Feeding a healthy and sustainable diet to a future population of almost 10 billion will be a monumental challenge, but it is within our reach. The EAT Stockholm Food Forum is a contribution to solving this challenge. The concept is a simple genius — my favorite kind.
Bring together innovators, leaders and forward thinkers who usually rarely meet but are working on interrelated, global challenges — food systems, climate change, food security, global health and sustainable development. Put them in one room and get them to share ideas, share best practice, share the latest research and hopefully reshape the broken systems driving our planetary shortcomings.
This year we’re hosting the fifth EAT Stockholm Food Forum in partnership with the Government of Sweden. We have an incredible line-up of speakers, including World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva; climate leader Christiana Figueres, an architect of the historic Paris Climate Agreement; Sam Kass, chef and former chief nutritionist to the Obama Administration; plus a host of global food heroes representing twenty-nine countries and six continents.
By Thalif Deen