When Feeding The World, Access Is As Important As Production

A truly comprehensive approach is needed now to address food insecurity and malnutrition at a global level, writes Brian Bogart, programme policy advisor at the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

As world leaders determine the goals and targets for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda over the coming months, we must make sure that both production – through sustainable improvements in agricultural productivity – and access – meaning that the poorest and most vulnerable people can obtain adequate food and have good nutrition – receive equal attention.

Even though there is enough food for everyone in the world today, about 842 million people continue to suffer from chronic hunger. 162 million children, or 1 in 4 worldwide, are stunted. If we are to make sustained progress towards eliminating poverty, hunger and malnutrition, the Post-2015 Development Agenda must recognize the critical importance of inclusive national food and nutrition systems that facilitate direct access to food for the most vulnerable.  

As highlighted by a recent report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Food Security and Nutrition and the Post-2015 Development Goals, increasing the availability of food can be achieved through improvements in agricultural productivity, nutrition-sensitive approaches to development policy, and greater levels of investment in smallholder farmers.

The World Food Programme (WFP) fully supports the report’s emphasis on women farmers and the critical role that women play in improving agricultural production, household income, and nutrition. Increasing household income and food availability at the national and sub-national level are essential elements of global efforts to eradicate hunger.

Adequate food at all times

At the same time, we believe that the Post-2015 Development Agenda must attach equal importance to ensuring that all people can obtain adequate food at all times. Consumption of adequate, nutritious food is critical to maintaining health and economic productivity.  A recent Cost of Hunger in Africa study , for example, found the economic cost of stunting to be between 1.9 and 16.5 percent of GDP.

Improving nutrition in adolescent girls and pregnant and nursing women is essential for long-term development. Good nutritional status during adolescence, conception, and throughout pregnancy plays a pivotal role in early child development and growth. Research published in the 2013 Lancet series shows that having access to nutritious food during the first 1,000 days - from conception to a child’s second birthday - makes a substantial contribution to reducing undernutrition, including the prevalence of stunting, wasting and micronutrient deficiencies.  

What does access mean? Even when adequate food is available on domestic markets, poverty, inequality and social exclusion prevent the poorest people from getting enough food to live healthy and productive lives.  

Poor and vulnerable households, who spend as much as 80 percent of their income on food, are particularly at risk and are often in need of targeted measures to ensure access through safety nets and targeted nutritional programmes.

 When conflict or natural disasters strike, the most vulnerable can be pushed to the tipping point, requiring immediate humanitarian response and subsequent efforts to stabilize prices, rebuild markets and support livelihoods.  

Balanced approach to food security

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge takes a balanced and comprehensive approach to food security and malnutrition. It has five principal elements which recognize the interdependence and complementarity of availability and access to food.

These are: eliminating stunting in children under two years of age; guaranteeing universal access to adequate and nutritious food; ensuring that all food systems are sustainable; achieving a 100 percent increase in the productivity and income of smallholder farmers; and eradicating food waste and loss.

Based on this framework, WFP has worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development to propose targets and indicators for a comprehensive approach to Food Security, Nutrition, and Sustainable Agriculture.  The targets proposed by the Rome-based Agencies of the United Nations are as follows:

1.    Access to food: All people have access to adequate (safe, affordable, diverse and nutritious) food all year round.

2.    Malnutrition: End malnutrition in all its forms (under-nutrition, micro-nutrient deficiencies and over-nutrition), with special attention to ending stunting.

3.    Sustainable food systems: All food production systems become more productive, sustainable, resilient and efficient - minimizing adverse environmental impact without compromising food and nutrition security.

4.    Smallholder productivity: All small food producers, especially women, have secure access to adequate inputs, knowledge, productive resources and services to increase their productivity sustainably and improve their income and resilience.

5.    Food loss and waste: More efficient post-production food systems (harvest, handling and storage, processing and packaging, transport and consumption) that reduce the global rate of food loss and waste by 50 percent.

As recognized in the Zero Hunger Challenge, these important objectives represent complementary aspects of the incredible effort that is required to eradicate world hunger in this generation.