Beyond Production to Reduce Poverty and Hunger

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By Matt Styslinger

At the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Washington, D.C. Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security on May 24th, speakers and panelists emphasized the need for approaches to agricultural development that include more than just increases in crop production. While programs that improve production and incomes—particularly of smallholder farmer—are needed, special attention should be paid to designing strategies that secure good nutrition for the world’s poorest people.

USDA secretary Tom Vilsack says that ensuring food security goes beyond just producing food (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Former secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Ann Veneman, said that hunger exists in the context of plenty. “The UN figures tell us that there are 925 million people around the world who suffer from chronic hunger,” she said. “At the same time we live in a world where there are 1 billion people who are overweight, of whom 300 million are obese.” She also said that while 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste every year.

Former member of Kenyan parliament Ruth Oniang’o said that, after years of neglect, she welcomed renewed international and national development efforts that are focusing on agriculture. But she stressed that the link between food production and nutrition was critical. “Just because [smallholder farmers] increase their tobacco production and have more income, which mostly goes to the men, that doesn’t mean that children will actually be better nourished,” said Oniang’o.

Oniang’o believes that by investing in women and youth in agricultural development, African governments can improve nutrition security in farming communities. “It’s mostly the women who struggle producing food,” she said. “These women don’t have training, extension collapsed a long time ago, they have no inputs, they have no credit, [and] nobody really cares about them.” Women, according to Oniang’o, are doing most of the farming in Africa at the smallholder level, and too much focus is going to men in development programs.

Oniang’o said that farming is a positive outlet for Africa’s young people. “There are no jobs, [but] there are opportunities in farming,” she said. According to Odiang’o, lack of opportunity—combined with lack of nutrition—creates instability and is detrimental to peace and democracy in the region. “Hunger is really devastating,” she said. “A hungry person with low blood sugar is a very angry person—virtually ungovernable.”

Oniang’o echoed the remarks that U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah made in his keynote speech, saying that children who are malnourished under the age of two suffered their entire lives from the reduced ability to learn and earn a living. “About ten years ago we started to get economic data that showed conclusively that these populations of malnourished kids were losing out in the long term,” said Shah. “[The data showed] that they had a ten percent reduction in their lifetime earning potential. That countries with high rates of stunting lost as much as 3 percent in annualized GDP. And that the kids themselves were literally not able to learn from a very young age… The thing that should cause us both the greatest anger and inspire us to be incredibly focused is that these changes are permanent.”

Chicago Council on Global Affairs senior fellow Bob Thompson said that limited land and water resources have to be considered as we produce more food to feed a growing world population. Thompson said that 75 percent of the extreme poverty in the world is in rural areas—areas where poor communities depend on environmental resources for their livelihoods. “According to FAO’s estimates, we could more than double the number of acres of land in production,” he said. “But if we do that we’ll have massive destruction of forest. If we lose forest we lose wildlife habitat, we lose biodiversity, [and] we lose the carbon sequestration capacity, accelerating global warming—all unacceptable environmental outcomes.” Thompson said that as urban demands on water resources continue to grow, poor farmers would have less to irrigate with. “Because farmers are going to have to increase their production using less water than today, we may be asking farmers to triple their crop per drop—or the amount of output they get per unit of water.”

USDA secretary Tom Vilsack reiterated Thompson’s point. “We are focused on expanding domestic production in developing countries to meet the growing food demand,” he said. “But even with the best efforts of the global community, it is likely that food production in many developing countries will be constrained by limited resources and prevailing weather patterns.”

Vilsack said that his agency hopes to foster agricultural development that makes more food accessible to those who need it with policies that bring better nutrition to the poor. “USDA knows that ensuring food security goes beyond just producing food—which is why we are working to promote solid policy and regulatory systems, sound statistical and information systems, and strong ministries of agriculture,” he said.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To read more about the Chicago Council on Global Affairs see: Gates Says Helping Poor Farming Families is the Best Way to Fight Poverty and Hunger, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs Gives a Mark of B Plus to the U.S. Government’s Leadership Role in Global Agricultural Development, New Initiative Aims to Influence UN Policy Discussions on Agriculture, Food, Non-Communicable Diseases, An Agricultural Success Story, and Women Farmers: An ‘Untapped Solution’ to Global Hunger.

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