The status of hunger around the world can be gauged from the reports released by the United Nations’ Food and agriculture Organisation (FAO). According to its report more than 800 million people around the world qualify as under-nourished.
Not surprisingly almost all of them are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. In other parts of the world too there are pockets even in developed countries where malnutrition exists but it is less than five percent of the total population.
Malnutrition leads to stunting (too short for their age), wasting (too thin for their height) and low weight to age ratio among young children. Among women the pregnant and lactating women often suffer from lack of nutrition. But apart from these two categories there is a lot of hidden hunger.
Even in Emerging Economies the urban middle class is suffering from malnutrition out of bad habit or ignorance or both.
All the discourse related to ending hunger revolves around increasing the basic calories per person per day. But increasing calories per day isn’t the whole story. A person can have a burger and a cola and can stuff calories in access of 2500 which is technically the baseline need to survive. Yet are they consuming nutrition, the answer is no. This is also the reason that even among the relatively well off Indian middle class we find anaemic women as a rampant phenomenon.
This is the reason India, while bringing millions out of poverty and expanding its middle class is still in the “serious’ zone when it comes to malnutrition and under nutrition in FAO reports. According to Global Hunger Report 2016, 28.5 percent of India’s population is facing some sort of hunger in the form of undernourishment that is leading to stunting, wasting and increased child mortality. As compared to India, China has been able to reduce this number to just 7 percent.
SDG and Prescription
Sustainable Development goal number 2 says that we should end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
To achieve these four goals it proposes to, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round by 2030. It also calls for end to all forms of malnutrition among children, women and elderly.
It wants to achieve this goal by doubling agricultural productivity and income of small scale food producers, particularly women, indigenous people, farmers, pastoralists and fishers. The goal intends to preserve genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species. It also wants to ensure sustainable food production systems and practices that increase productivity and production.
From a distance it all looks good, however, the devil lies in the details. The goal says that productivity in the agricultural sector needs to be increased. In itself it’s not a bad idea till the time you realise that India with far lower per acre productivity than China still manages to produce record levels of grain production. It’s theoretically enough to feed all the citizens of India and still leave a little surplus for the rainy day.
Even on global level the present world grain and other production is enough to feed all the seven billion souls residing on the planet. The problem is not of lack of food it’s about distribution. It’s artificial scarcity that needs to be addressed first. And there-in lie the rub.
Most of the food surplus is concentrated in global north and hunger in global south. The movement of food from the North to South needs international agreements based on the principles of fair play, humanity and equity.
This is a tall ask when agricultural produce is a contentious issue in World Trade Organisation (WTO) and billions of dollars are to be won or lost in its import and export.
Even if we leave aside the global politics, within the national boundaries the movement of food grains are restricted due to various cartels and the wastage is visible all around. Agricultural produce is wasted either in transit or at the food table.
Secondly, the insistence of increasing production has been misconstrued by many governments as a license to mindlessly increase the total cultivable land in their country jeopardising their forest land, mangroves, water bodies etc.
This expansion of agricultural land will be in direct conflict with the other part of the goal number 2 that talks about sustainable agricultural practices and maintaining the genetic diversity of seeds, animals and plants.
This is because in the rush to meet the hunger targets and tick off all the boxes the governments will race to first meet the calorie intake target. For this purpose they would go for high yield varieties of grain and higher milk producing cattle varieties which are foreign to their own geographies. For example India has extensively used high yielding rice and wheat varieties that put extreme pressure on scarce water resources and at the cost of diversity in both the grains. Similarly Jersey cows from US are preferred by milk producers than the local varieties that produce lesser, though high quality, milk.
Even if the productivity per acre logic is applied these high yielding varieties will win over more traditional varieties. This is because bringing agricultural scientists, genetic engineers, bio-engineers, micro-biologists to the farm land is an exercise that most of the governments in global South are ill-equipped to undertake. They don’t have the scientific infrastructure to undertake this transition. While countries like India have the scientific wherewithal but lack financial abilities to undertake a nationwide mission of such gigantic proportions.
The vision of promoting and protecting women and small, marginal and family size farmers is all good but in reality the problem they face is very basic. Their farm size is totally uneconomic and there is no way that they can be made sustainable in the long run.
The Way Forward
First and foremost a one size fits all calorie count can’t work globally. People living in colder climates need more calories to keep themselves warm. So a new calorie index should be created which can be applied according to nations to begin with and within nations if they have huge geographical diversity than regional calorie index should also be put in place.
Secondly every country’s traditional food plate should be taken into account and based on their food preferences, availability and food cycle (seasonal variations, like in India traditionally in winters people ate more of gram and ragi based chapattis and til in winters).
This will help the local governments, policy makers, health professionals and farmers to use the right kind of grain species, which is indigenous. This way they would be able to save their genetic diversity by employing it for clear economic gains.
A nationwide communication campaign should be launched in every country facing hunger and malnutrition in mission mode. The communication campaign should be aimed at creating a mass awareness about saving food items, eating right and eating moderately among every individual. It should actually turn into an evangelical movement.
The government should overhaul its procurement policy, invest in large scale development of cold chains and secure transportation of food and food related items. It should also institute rating systems of various food whole sale markets on their waste reduction abilities.
Large scale kitchens at schools, religious places, hotels, hospitals should also be rewarded for instituting or developing innovative waste reduction methods. Subsidies and financial incentives should be offered to other institutions that replicate it.
Last but not the least to stop perverse incentive of moving from undernourishment from malnutrition to undernourishment due to eating high calorie junk food, it’s important to heavily tax packed food and junk food industry.
The above mentioned actions can be subsidized by using the resources earned from higher taxation of these junk food behemoths.
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