By Nabeeha M. Kazi, President & CEO, Humanitas Global & Chair, Community for Zero Hunger
Photo Credit: National Geographic/Jim Richardson
This week, the National Geographic Society and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are launching an eight-month series titled "The Future of Food" to raise public awareness of food and agriculture topics, and the question of how to feed nine billion people by 2050.
The May issue of National Geographic magazine kicks off the conversation with Jonathan Foley's article titled "A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World." In addition, you can join the National Geographic Society and FAO for a live-stream panel event from 2:00 - 4:30 p.m. US Eastern Standard Time on Friday, May 2 to learn more about what is in store and how communities can engage.
In the series' first feature piece, Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, looks at where we are in our efforts to feed the world, what is required as we look ahead, and what is at stake if we simply keep doing more of the same.
The five steps, which he describes in detail in the article, are to:
- Freeze agriculture's footprint
- Grow more on farms, specifically targeting those that are unproductive
- Use resources more efficiently to reduce farming's environmental impact
- Shift diets with a transition toward less-meat intensive diets in key regions of the world
- Reduce waste and loss of food
I applaud the National Geographic Society and its collaborators for taking on this important topic. In reflecting upon Foley’s article and opportunities within the broader series, I felt that some critical additional issues should be elevated. Below is what stands out given what the food and nutrition security team at Humanitas Global is seeing in the field.
1. Put nutrition front and center.
We cannot overlook the importance of nutrition. The conversation must extend beyond feeding more people and producing more food. Filling bellies is one thing, but nourishing the mind and enabling optimal development in children are another. The good news is that we have the tools and knowledge to create integrated strategies where feeding AND nourishing can co-exist. We must acknowledge that fighting hunger AND malnutrition go hand in hand, and demand that countries look at quality of food – not merely quantity.
2. Elevate the world’s farmers.
There is a well-documented farmer drain underway in much of the world – especially as it relates to young people. In Africa, for example, more than 70 percent of the population is under age 30. Instead of staying on farms, young people who have the ability to move to urban centers or select jobs in non-agricultural sectors are doing so in significant numbers.
This reminds me of something that young Eastern European teenagers told me a few years ago: the last thing they would choose to do would be to follow in the footsteps of their parents and be farmers. It was work that the poorest of the poor did, and despite long hours and tremendous efforts toiling the land, their families remained hungry, cold, sick and overlooked by the world. It was a miserable existence.
We have to incentivize, celebrate and exponentially improve the lives of the world’s farmers. We can have the best insights, systems and technology in the world, but if we don’t have the hand that wants to, and is celebrated for, turning that switch on, we are sunk.
3. Build enabling environments where feeding the world can flourish and tell us about them.
I’m astounded by the “soundbite” nature of how we illustrate success in fighting hunger and malnutrition. On the one hand it is powerful to hear of that inspiring story of the number of people fed through an intervention, percentage decline in nutrition-related diseases, etc. On the other hand it prevents us from emphasizing the story of systems, capacity and policies that were improved and required to deliver these results.
The National Geographic article highlights the Green Revolution. So much of the legacy of Dr. Borlaug and his Green Revolution is communicated as being defined by scientific and research innovations, agricultural technology and crop inputs, but these elements were actually only one part of the success that Dr. Borlaug and his team of scientists demonstrated in India and Pakistan. These elements also are not the main reasons why the Green Revolution failed in Africa.
The Green Revolution worked in South Asia because Dr. Borlaug was able to secure support from Indian and Pakistani leaders who committed to the Green Revolution's offerings through a mix of cross-cutting, comprehensive initiatives. In the 1960s these South Asian countries constructed an enabling environment that included an ideal policy landscape, engaged farmer and beneficiary communities, and mechanisms for scalable and seamless delivery of goods and services. How ironic that the darlings of the Green Revolution now demonstrate the world’s worst rates in hunger and malnutrition; the scenario reinforces that the goods may be at our disposal, but if our delivery systems, political will and country capacity to implement are weak, the goods can only get us so far.
We must be careful not to perpetuate an incomplete conversation that prevents us from highlighting the other elements that contributed to success. Building country capacity, an ultra-engaged consumer base, effective supply chains, accessible financial services platforms, mechanisms for market connectivity, advocacy programs, relevant public health, food and nutrition policy frameworks, better infrastructure, etc. are all part of sustainably ending hunger and malnutrition and feeding our growing world. These may not be the most exciting storylines to tell, but they are the storylines that ultimately transform communities.
4. Our collective knowledge base is vast; let’s scale it.
We know that much of what stands in the way of progress in feeding and nourishing the world is linked to context-specific challenges. We also know that knowledge and solutions are plentiful, but they need to be scoped and curated to respond to regional and country-level barriers. By creating accessible mechanisms and platforms where context-appropriate knowledge, experiences and solutions are able to be credibly shared, communities will be better able to integrate available knowledge into their own responses to meeting food and nutrition needs.
5. Make it work for women.
She has a baby on her back, a hoe in her right hand, a water container in her left hand, and a bundle of freshly harvested vegetables balancing on her head. She is the one who is literally holding up and feeding our future. We need to build a kinder world for women. We must construct a world that gives a woman the right to own and inherit the land upon which she works, where basic health, financial and technical services come to her, and where women farmers are prosperous, protected and promoted as heroes.
I’d love to hear what else our readers think needs to be brought forward. Leave a comment below to tell us what else is needed to match the food and nutrition needs of our increasing population.