Sunday, 16 October 2011

World Food Day: Quantity AND Quality

By John Humphrey

I have been looking through the Issues Paper produced by FAO for World Food Day. This year, the theme is food price volatility and what should be done about it. There is a lot of good material about some of the determinants of food price volatility, the impacts and some initiatives to counter these negative impacts.

I have recently ventured into the world of health, nutrition and agriculture-nutrition linkages, having previously conducted research on agricultural production and agri-food value chains. As a result, I am probably suffering from "convert zeal". Nevertheless, I am struck by the extent to which the food problem is defined in quantitative terms:
  • There is not enough food
  • We need to produce more food by increasing investment, improving technology and reducing production of (and incentives for) non-food agricultural crops, particularly biofuels.
No-one is likely to argue that food availability is unimportant, although there are intense debates about the importance of global food availability and the access of the hungry to this food. But, a recent visit to Bangladesh highlighted to me what many food and nutrition specialists have been saying for a long time – a country can be very successful in increasing production and productivity of basic grains such as rice, but on its own this will not solve problems of undernourishment and access.
  • Undernourishment is still a massive problem in Bangladesh, in spite of significant improvements in rice production.  This is because, contrary to what one might think, these improvements do not translate very directly into more varied diets and improvements in indicators of undernutrition.
  • Greater availability and access to staple foods needs to be complemented by greater consumption of foods that have the vitamins, minerals and proteins essential for health. This means not only increasing production of more diverse and nutritious foods, but also ensuring that that undernourished people gain access to them.
The lesson is that the world food challenge is one of quality as well as quantity. Diversifying diets and ensuring that nutritious food gets to the populations that most need it is as big a challenge as producing enough calories to feed the world.

On 26 October, I will be joining speakers from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and Unilever to talk about establishing better linkages between agricultural programmes and nutrition programmes and the ways in which businesses can contribute to promoting the production and consumption of nutritious food. The seminar “Harnessing Value Chains and Private Sector Innovation to Boost Nutrition” is promoted by Business Action for Africa in London.

*Please go to the Business Fights Poverty website to register for the event.