Making Hunger History, By Noeleen Heyzer, Social Scientist and Former United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Hunger has plagued humanity since the dawn of recorded history. It has featured in every era and every civilization. It has brought empires to ruin, and societies to their knees. In this second decade of the 21st century, we have the expertise, the technology, and the resources to feed every person, in every country. Yet there are still more than 840 million people whose lives are wracked by hunger. This is an unforgivable development failure – and the single greatest obstacle to creating the inclusive, sustainable, and resilient future we want.
We are now in 2015, deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – and despite all of the good progress made in reducing extreme poverty – there are still more than 535 million undernourished people in Asia and the Pacific alone. Beating the scourge of hunger is the most basic prerequisite for development success, because inclusive growth, social equity, and sustainable development will not happen on empty stomachs.
A Systemic Approach to Ending Hunger
For large numbers of people in Asia and the Pacific, food security depends as much on income as it does on food availability – this is the issue of access to food, and it is especially critical for our poorest and most vulnerable groups. We must ensure that action to promote long-term food sustainability is complemented by measures to ensure economic, social, and physical access to food, particularly for these groups. Ensuring some protection against shocks, for example through better financial security and food provisioning to support poor households, can ensure that they avoid the worst impacts of a hand-to-mouth existence.
Longer term food insecurity and malnutrition, however, are also the results of a failure to consider food production and consumption as part of a holistic food system, which is economically, socially, and environmentally integrated. As we look towards the need, by 2050, to feed nine billion people, we already see rising tensions between competing demands for food, water, and energy – tensions which cannot be solved by a fragmented approach. We need to think and plan across all stages of food systems – from production and accessibility, to fair trade, reducing waste, social safety nets for farming populations, and even nutrition education. Sound food systems are made up of people, the environment, institutions, and processes. My focus is on these four areas for action, and the urgent transformative shifts they will need, in Asia and the Pacific, to ensure sustainable food systems.
People: Shifting to People-Centered Agriculture
The first shift is about making agriculture people-centered. Smallholder agriculture accounts for up to 80 per cent of all food consumed worldwide. Yet almost every farmer I have ever met in Asia and the Pacific believes that being a farmer means being poor. From central Asia to the Pacific, the farmers I have met share stories of marginalization and deprivation. Many have no regular access to land, water, or seeds. They lack influence over policies, and despite producing most of the food in the world, they are themselves the poorest and hungriest segment of our population.
It is morally indefensible and socially unsustainable that up to 70 per cent of the hungry and malnourished are either small-scale farmers or agricultural laborers. Little wonder then that the children of farmers choose to abandon their farms in search of better opportunities. We need to transform investment priorities and policies to make agriculture a profitable livelihood. This means investing in small farmers, empowering farmer entrepreneurs, and providing buffers against price volatility and disaster-related shocks. It means creating opportunities for income diversification, and making agricultural insurance work.
Indigenous farming methods which build adaptation to climate change must be supported, and fair access to cleaner renewable energy, technology, research, and markets must be ensured. We have ample evidence from East and Southeast Asia to show that investing in inclusive agriculture pays economic, social, and environmental dividends. Let’s put people back at the heart of our food system.
Environment: Shifting to Eco-Efficient Food Systems
The second critical transformation is to shift to more eco-efficient food systems and more sustainable agriculture. For too long we have pushed our planetary boundaries to increase agricultural yields – borrowing against our future to feed our present. Climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and soil degradation are the price we are already paying. We are helping member States to develop and apply innovations in production and processing, tapping indigenous knowledge, and promoting biodiversity in farming systems to reduce negative impacts on the environment and improve agricultural resilience.
Processes: Addressing Root Causes of Food Losses & Waste
The third important shift is to address the processes which produce staggering amounts of food loss and waste: about one third of all food produced for human consumption. Not only is this a chance to eradicate global hunger, it is also a significant opportunity to ease the environmental pressures of food production and processing: with its massive carbon footprint, food wastage is the third largest emitter of CO2 in the world and makes immensely negative impacts on climate change, soil, water resources, and biodiversity.
In poorer countries, food losses result mainly from an absence of proper storage facilities. Significant losses are also incurred due to inadequate farm-to-market roads and transportation. In richer societies, food waste is to a large extent, a byproduct of consumption habits. Solutions therefore have to recognize these nuances.
Reducing food loss and waste should be seriously considered as one of the targets for inclusion in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but countries should also be supported to implement the strategies which best address the specific causes of these problems in their areas. The most appropriate interventions are those which address losses and waste as symptoms of weaknesses in infrastructure, transport, and logistics, as well as through changing perceptions, mindsets, and lifestyles.
Institutions: Shifting To More Inclusive Food System Institutions
The fourth and final transformation I would like to address centers on the shifts we need in the institutions which govern our food systems. We need transparent multi-stakeholder institutional arrangements that recognize, as equal partners in more sustainable agriculture, our governments, smallholder farmers, fishers, and rural laborers, as well as investors, consumers, civil society, and the scientific community.
It is also important to address the gender disparities which exist in our farming sectors – recognizing the expertise and empowering the voices of women farmers whose labour is often exploited without regard for equal pay, social protection, or skills development.
There is also urgent need to reform the institutions governing the international trade of agricultural products. This is especially important for our region because 25 countries in Asia and the Pacific are net importers of food. I am not arguing for protectionism but rather for fair trade and for the need to address trade distortions. The 2008 food crisis reinforced the need to strengthen regional institutional mechanisms to support each other in the event of price shocks in the international trade of agricultural products.
In conclusion, as policy-makers, political leaders, captains of industry, development champions, and even just as human beings, we share the responsibility to end hunger in our lifetime.
We are the only generation which has ever had the means to do so – and we are now presented with a window of opportunity to shape the post-2015 development agenda. But we have to act urgently to mobilize investment, science, policies, institutions, and communities.
Our legacy will be defined by how we rise to this challenge, and whether we succeed in finally making hunger history.