Monday, October 16, is World Food Day. The annual event brings attention to global hunger. This year’s focus is on investment in developing countries' agriculture, especially the small-scale farmer.
More than 800 million people worldwide live with constant hunger. And 25,000 of them die each day, mostly from severe malnutrition. Twenty years ago, heads of state at the World Food Summit challenged countries to cut global hunger in half by 2015. Joachim von Braun, director of the private, International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, thinks it is still possible.
“China, India, Brazil have taken major new steps to reduce hunger and malnutrition," he said. "The problem is in the smaller countries, and in much of Sub-Saharan Africa. But cutting hunger in half by the year 2015 is an achievable goal.”
Women and children are often the hardest hit. In Africa, a severe food crisis in 2005, and earlier this year, appears to be lessening in many parts of the continent. But it is estimated that 200 million people remain malnourished. Severe drought has caused crop failure in Southern Africa. In parts of East Africa, livestock have died because of a lack of rain. And in West Africa, poor rains have dried up pastureland.
In the West African country of Niger, Aboudou Karimou Adjibade, with UNICEF (the U.N. Children's Fund) says aid to help the malnourished often comes too late. “Each time we wait, a lot of people are moving to severe malnutrition status. Each time we can prevent, invest at the early stage, we are sure we are saving the lives of thousands and thousands of children.”
Small-scale farmers do more than three-quarters of the farming in the developing world. In Africa, most of them are women who cultivate small plots of land. Von Braun says these women could be helped with small loans, and organized cooperatives to help them market their crops.
He also says if poor farmers are able to make a profit, they can improve their crop yields by purchasing equipment, fertilizer, and higher quality seed. They can also adequately feed their families.
“Many of these farm families in developing countries are among the undernourished, the food insecure, the hungry," he said. "It’s a paradox. The people who grow the crops are suffering from poverty to such an extent that many of them and their children are hungry.”
Farmers in some parts of the southern African nation of Malawi are facing food shortages. UNICEF’s Aida Germa says 500,000 children in Malawi have lost their parents because of AIDS, leaving many of them orphans and undernourished.
“We have HIV/AIDS which has already devastated a number of the families. You have a situation where the malnutrition rate has not improved at all since 1992,” Germa said.
Joachim Von Braun says because of a larger population, there are twice as many malnourished children in South Asia than in Sub-Saharan Africa. But the reasons are different, since famine does not often occur in South Asia. Although agriculture has improved there, the low status of women has not. Common practices, such as men in the household eating first, have led to malnutrition in women and children.
Von Braun says investing in education and health care for women can reduce malnutrition in both women and children.
"It relates to health, mother’s education, and women’s discrimination, much more in Asia, than Sub-Saharan Africa where the issues are lack of food, lack of access to food, and poor ecologies, bad soils," he said. "So we need to have very different approaches to address the under-nutrition and hunger problem in South Asia versus Sub-Saharan Africa."
He believes by investing in agriculture, along with better education, health, and infrastructure, malnourishment can be turned around, enabling poor countries to feed themselves.