The Real Costs of Cheap Food
Hans Herren, holder of the Right Livelihood Award, demands a global change of food production.
The Welthungerhilfe, one of Germany’s largest aid organisations, is fighting against global hunger and for sustainable food security. Welthungerhilfe’s president Bärbel Dieckmann on her vision of a world without hunger and insecurity.
Worldwide, 795 million people still suffer from undernutrition today. This means one in nine people goes to bed hungry every night and wakes up hungry every morning. More than 70% of those affected by hunger live in poor, rural regions in developing countries. They are from smallholder farming communities or landless day labourers who depend on farming. They work the land, raise livestock, and hunt and fish. They generally have no electricity and no access to clean drinking water. Education and healthcare are scarce and of poor quality. Toilets, waste water treatment and rubbish collection are not even a distant hope.
...women and children are particularly hard hit by hunger.
These men and women do their very best to feed their families and earn money. But they cannot find work outside the agricultural sector. Many children have to help their parents eke out a living and cannot attend school. When men leave for the cities in search of better pay or go abroad as migrant workers, women and children are often left behind. Women are then solely responsible for family’s survival and have to shoulder all the work in the fields and the home. It is therefore no surprise that women and children are particularly hard hit by hunger. Rural life is tough and incomes are often so low that families cannot put any money aside. Small problems – like being unable to work due to an illness or the loss of an animal – can quickly evolve into a catastrophe for a family. So hunger remains a constant threat, even when enough food is available.
If we are to overcome hunger and ensure food security in the face of a growing population while making sure everyone has access to healthy and varied food to prevent undernutrition, we have to restructure food production and consumption to be more efficient. This is especially important in light of the increasing demand for animal-based foods as eating habits change in many countries with a rise in income. At the same time, natural resources like soil and water are growing increasingly scarce.
We lose up to half of all the agricultural products and food we generate.
We lose up to half of all the agricultural products and food we generate. In industrialised countries, waste and careless processing and consumption result in tremendous amounts of rubbish. In developing countries, inefficient technologies and poor infrastructure drive up food waste. Investing in the storage, transport and processing of agricultural goods could therefore make a huge contribution to battling poverty and hunger.
Providing the global markets with key staple foods depends on just a few countries that grow large surpluses. When environmental factors or catastrophes cause crops to fail in these countries, the amount of grain available worldwide drops precipitously and prices spike. Poor import countries face the threat of food shortages. The risks associated with the current concentration of food production illustrate how important it is to use existing agricultural potential more intensively in developing countries to combat hunger.
The solution to our global food problem lies in the hands of smallholder farmers today, and will continue to do so in the coming decades. More than 80% of all farms cultivate less than two hectares. Experience with assisting smallholder farmers has shown that their capacity is nowhere near exhausted. They still have great untapped potential for producing more food, especially on the African continent. With the right support, farms can also be the key to development that is good for the environment and conserves resources.
National governments and the international community have made a promise to support people in realising their basic right to healthy food.
Rural development and smallholder farming in developing countries are back on the political agenda – and rightly so. They are not only the most important building blocks in overcoming global hunger, but also in upholding the human right to food. Helping people access adequate and the right kinds of food is not a question of charity. National governments and the international community have made a promise to support people in realising their basic right to healthy food.
Farming is affected by environmental conditions, the stage of development, and cultural norms, so there is no rural development model that is globally valid. One central idea does apply across the board though: Poor smallholder farmers must become modern, ecological, efficient and socially sustainable farmers. The crops they grow need to be more than enough to feed their families. Initially success here will be achieved through measures to increase production, such as better seeds or irrigation. Crop diversification will also help reduce the risks of crop failure. Locally, crop diversity will also contribute to a healthy, culturally appropriate and affordable food supply. Two million people suffer from malnutrition worldwide. Poor people in rural areas in particular do not have enough money to supplement their diets with fruits, vegetables and some meat and dairy products to ensure proper nutrition.
Supporting women is central…
Local business communities also need support if agriculture is to contribute to successful rural development. This secures income and creates new jobs. Building up marketing structures and processing agricultural products are most important here. There is a wide range of options, from methods of conservation, such as drying fruit and vegetables, to producing juice and cheese and fermenting cocoa. It is very important to improve transportation routes and provide electricity for storage if food is to arrive to market in good condition.
Supporting women is central to all these concepts. In Africa and Asia, women and girls produce over half of all food, although they rarely have equal access to land or means of production. Women and girls must have equal access to education and health if they are to participate in social decision-making processes, earn money, lead independent lives and as such contribute to successful rural development.
Governments in countries affected by hunger and the international community have to step up their efforts to achieve sustainable food security worldwide. We have the capacity to feed the world.
Photo: “ Africa’s economy rebounds strongly, but jobs remain elusive” by Africa Renewal
2004 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)