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Every year on 16 October, the world puts food security in the spotlight. And this is very important. After all, since 2014, the number of hungry people has been increasing again, according to the FAO report The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Today, 690 million people are starving, accounting for 8.9% of the world's population. This is 60 million more than in 2014. The increase is mainly due to conflicts and climate-related shocks, in addition to a slowdown in economic growth.
The slogan of World Food Day 2020. © FAO
But there are some even more staggering figures. An estimated 2 billion people had only irregular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food in 2019. 144 million children under the age of 5 (21.3%) continued to see stunted growth and 47 million (6.9%) were underweight, with 38.3 million (5.6%) overweight.
Most of the world's poor can afford a diet that provides sufficient energy (calories). But a diet that provides all the necessary nutrients or is healthy costs a lot more. This is why more than 3 billion people (in 2017) could not afford a healthy diet. Moreover, in many poor countries, there are not enough fruit and vegetables available to really eat healthily.
A Rwandan nurse measures a child's arm. 144 million children are stunted due to malnutrition. © CIAT
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this worse. To prevent the spread of the virus, many governments restricted the freedom of movement of people and goods. This made it more difficult for farmers to market their products and to access crucial inputs, such as seeds and fertilisers. This, in turn, has led to higher food prices. Moreover, many people lost their jobs or had less income.
In short, the impact of COVID-19 on food security is considerable. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the pandemic will cause 83 to 132 million more people to be malnourished. The most vulnerable have an especially hard time.
SDG2 not on track
SDG2 – one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals – stated that all hunger in the world must be eradicated by 2030. We are way off schedule. If the current trend continues, more than 840 million people will be starving in 2030. We are also not on schedule for stunted growth in children and low birth weights. Adult obesity is on the rise.
Food systems out of balance
However, overall we can produce enough food today to feed everyone. It is just that our food systems are out of balance. This has to do with hunger as well as obesity, environmental degradation, loss of agrobiological diversity, food loss and waste, lack of security for workers in the food chain and so on.
Acting for the future
So on this World Food Day 2020, the FAO is releasing a less positive story. This is why it is calling for urgent ‘action for the future’. We must strive for more environmentally friendly, resilient, healthy and fair food systems. We also need to waste less food, through more efficient storage and processing. Digitalisation and e-commerce offer opportunities. Ultimately, everyone must have access to affordable healthy food. And every worker in the food chain is entitled to a decent living.
Above all, agricultural practices must be truly sustainable. This means that they preserve and protect our health, climate and the natural resources of our planet instead of damaging and depleting them. An ‘agro-ecological’ approach that uses natural processes – rich, healthy soil; natural enemies, etc. – can be inspiring. Diversification – more vegetables, fruit, fish farming, etc. – is also essential. Especially in the South, energy-rich crops such as maize, rice and manioc are often used too unilaterally.
Saving on costs
The FAO is also calling for international solidarity and partnerships. The price tag should not be an inhibiting factor. After all, current patterns of food consumption lead to poorer health or to all kinds of diseases such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. In 2030, the health costs caused by food would be $1.3 trillion. On top of this, the cost of greenhouse gas emissions will be $1.7 trillion in 2030. By switching to healthy diets and sustainable farming practices, we can save 97% of those health costs and 41-47% of the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.
Family farmers, our food heroes
On this World Food Day, the FAO wishes to pay tribute to the true food heroes: the approximately 800 million family farmers. They manage 75% of the agricultural land and produce 80% of all food. They are true innovators who continuously adapt their methods to changing circumstances. Most of us depend on them. Yet it is precisely these small producers who are most vulnerable in the event of a crisis.
© K. Trautmann
Individual citizens can help too
This year, the UN is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and the FAO has also been around for 75 years. More than ever, the world is facing enormous challenges. Yet a world without hunger remains possible. In addition to governments and companies, the individual citizen also has a role to play, according to the FAO. ‘We can maintain sustainable habits. We can make healthy food choices. We can avoid waste. We can invite governments, companies and organisations to share their knowledge and support sustainable and robust food systems.’ Together, we can all ‘grow, feed and preserve’ and thus ‘act for the future’, as the slogan of this World Food Day reads.
What is Belgium doing?
Belgium is joining in with the FAO's vision. Food security is an important element for our country to cope with the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is why it is aiming to pay extra attention to agriculture and food in its development projects. It is also allocating part of its humanitarian aid to increasing the food security of at-risk groups, including through FAO's emergency fund, SFERA. This has already happened in Mali, Sierra Leone, Haiti and Zimbabwe, among others.