Pedro Medrano Rojas, acting assistant executive director, partnership and governance services of the World Food Program (WFP), offers a sobering observation on the Millennium Goal commitment to reduce by half the number of malnourished people in the world by 2015.
“We’re not going to make it,” he says as he begins an interview. In fact, the number of hungry people in the world today is between 800 million and 900 million, depending on how you measure it, which is about the same as it was in 2000 when global world leaders made their commitment.
Granted, the world’s total population has increased by more than a billion since then, so the percentage of hungry has dropped. But Rojas says the commitment wasn’t to reduce the percentage, it was to reduce the number of hungry people.
“What is important is the number,” says the Chilean-born economist who has devoted much of his life to humanitarian development. “Percentages only mask inequality.”
What’s frustrating for people who spend their lives doing this kind of work is that there is no shortage of food. Despite the bombardment of messages that the world’s farmers must increase production by up to 70 per cent to feed what is expected to be a population of nine billion people by 2050, Rojas says the key issue is access to nutrition — and that’s a function of priorities, not production.
“What I see as the major challenge is today most of the food-insecure people are living in middle-income countries, and middle-income countries are not the priority for the international community,” he says. International food donors such as Canada focus their efforts on the lesser-developed countries or regions of the world in which food insecurity is created by environmental disaster, political instability or military conflict.
He noted food production in India has increased fourfold since the Green Revolution and it is now an exporting country. Yet it is home to one of the highest per capita rates of malnourished children.
Rojas said the global community has realized that child nutrition is key to a country’s economic growth, but that realization has not yet translated into policies that consider the elimination of malnourishment as an investment, rather than a cost.
Cognitive ability, a human being’s intellectual potential, is determined within the first few years of a child’s life. Poor nutrition at that stage has lifelong consequences, not only for individuals, but for a nation’s economic growth, he said. That affects the global community too.
In Guatemala, for example, where 53 per cent of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition, the GDP is reduced by 13 per cent. That translates to losses in economic terms of about $6 million a year. “With a fraction of that we could solve the problem of hunger,” Rojas says.
Progress is being made, however.
Rojas speaks highly of the decision by Canada, the EU and several other international donors to “untie” their aid and move towards stable, long-term funding for the WFP. Canada has pledged to provide a minimum annual commitment of $250 million in food assistance.
That shift, which has been solidified in the newly ratified World Food Aid Convention, increases the agency’s flexibility in its programs and its procurement strategies.
Last year, the WFP purchased more than two million tonnes of food worth $1.1 billion. Eighty-six per cent of that was sourced in developing countries, a strategy that not only supports local economies and smallholder farmers, but reduces transportation costs and the time it takes to get the food mobilized.
An analysis of the WFP’s Ethiopian program in 2010 found that local purchasing saved $40 million, which is the equivalent of feeding 250,000 people for a year.
The lead time required to get food into place during a crisis has been reduced by up to 62 days.
Of course, Canada’s move to untied aid in 2008 had an impact on this country’s farmers. The WFP procurement from Canadian suppliers has dropped significantly. Last year, 10,000 tonnes of peas and lentils worth about $6.5 million were purchased from Canada. The program’s deputy director of procurement Mary-Ellen McGroarty says future purchases from Canada are most likely to be in the form of nutritionally dense processed foods.
But to their credit, most Canadian farm groups supported Canada’s leadership in untying its food aid contributions. In reality, there isn’t much of an economic future in supplying food aid to the chronically poor. The future for Canadian export agriculture lies in marketing to emerging economies, where an increasingly wealthy population seeks to expand nutritional choices.
Those economies, those opportunities, won’t develop for as long as children are going hungry.