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Proper nutrition a function of priorities: UN official

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A senior official with the UN's World Food Programme didn't mince words when asked recently about the status of the Millennium Goal commitment by world leaders to halve the number of malnourished people in the world by 2015.

"We're not going to make it," Pedro Medrano Rojas, acting assistant executive director, partnership and governance services of the World Food Programme (WFP) said in an interview in Winnipeg.

The number of hungry people in the world today is between 800 and 900 million, depending on how you measure it, which is about the same as it was in 1996 when global world leaders made their historic commitment.

And it's only that low because the definition of how hunger is quantified is now set at 1,800 calories per day, which is the minimum for an sedentary adult. Aid workers note most of the world's poor, many of whom walk miles just to secure water and work fields by hand, need a minimum intake of 2,100 to 2,300 calories per day.

Granted, the world's total population has increased by more than a billion since the 1990s, so the percentage of hungry has dropped. But Rojas counters 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 fighting hunger is that there is no shortage of food. The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates world agriculture produces food enough now to provide the total population with at least 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. But up to half of that is wasted.

Despite the bombardment of messages that 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," Rojas said.

He noted food production in India has increased four-fold 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 acknowledges child nutrition is key to economic growth, but that has not yet translated into policies that treat the elimination of child hunger as an investment, rather than a cost.

A human being's intellectual potential, which is a function of nutrition, is determined in early childhood. Child hunger has lifelong consequences, not only for individual health, but for a nation's economic growth, he said.

In Guatemala, for example, where half of the population is chronically malnourished, GDP is cut 13 per cent or about $6 million a year. "With a fraction of that we could solve the problem of hunger," Rojas said.

Rojas speaks highly of the decision by Canada, the EU and several other international donors to "untie" their aid, in favour of stable long-term funding for the WFP. In the past, Canada's aid pledge came in the form of commodity commitments that had to come from this country's farmers.

Now Canada provides a minimum annual commitment of $250 million in cash, which can be spent however the WFP sees fit. That shift, which has been solidified in the newly ratified World Food Aid Convention, increases the WFP's flexibility to acquire food and deliver it. It has cut costs and reduced delivery times by as much as 62 days.

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 supports local economies and small-holder farmers.

 

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 B11

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