In the last three years, food prices have risen by more than 80 percent. This has led to a spiral of mass demonstrations in countries like Haiti, Philippines and Egypt, among others. In 2005, most wheat, rice and tomatoes were grown in China. From the USA came most corn and milk. India grew most mangoes in the world. The World Bank opines that the rising food prices will bring gains to states in South and North America, Russia and Australia, while the largest losers, beside some Asian and Arab countries will mostly be African states.
Isatou Jalowje worked for the Gambian government for 18 years before joining the World Food Programme where she is Chief for Women, Children and Gender Policy, Planning and Strategy Division. She talks to Kristina Bozic of Dnevnikov Objektiv, Dnevnik (Slovenia)about states that will not only lose most in the following years but also fail to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
What is the current situation on the world food market?
What I would rather talk about is the impact of the high prices on developing societies, especially populations that have been vulnerable before. As a result of the high level of malnutrition in developing countries and with high food prices now, populations, especially women and children are devastated.
So the prices are rising?
Yes. The prices are expected to remain high for a decade. We must find out how we are going to support countries address the situation. Countries whose food security depends on imported foods will suffer the most. Countries with people spending 70 % of their income on food are already affected. In addition, when the purchasing power of people reduces, the lose out on the quality of food they consume. Then the quantity suffers.
Right now everybody is rallying around the issue. There are high level meetings in government and multilateral organizations (like UNICEF, WFP) on the issue. In South Africa not long ago, 18 countries met to discuss the impact of rising food prices on their populations. The meeting was supported by the World Bank, WFP, UNICEF and so many different organizations. They discussed how to work with countries in addressing the short term, medium term and long term needs.
Which parts of the world will be affected most by this rise of food prices?
The developing world. As I mentioned earlier, countries whose food security depends on importing most of the food they consume will suffer most alongside those with growing populations and high demand for food.
Tell us something about your work in Gambia
Actually before I started working for the WFP, I worked in Gambia on nutrition. As I worked for the government, I collaborated with organizations like the WFP. My task involved working at the policy and community level to help implement nutrition programs especially among women and children.
Do vulnerable groups have a voice?
I differ with people who say that poor don't have a voice, and that we have to speak for them. The poor not only have a voice, but they are speaking. In fact, they are shouting. The question is, do we hear them? They don't even have to say anything. Their situation speaks volumes! There are over 850 million people clinically hungry. The figures speak for themselves. They don't have to say anything. It is up to us, to hear them.
Are we hearing?
At least we are. What remains to be seen is whether in collaboration with respective governments we shall address the situation sustainably or give it a quick fix.There is a general awareness that something needs to be done. We are working with the governments on national policies. For example, in the initiative called Renewed Efforts Against Child hunger (REACH) we cooperate with national governments to end child hunger and under nutrition. The focus should be country-led to end child hunger. We work with states and support them to address the situation.
In Africa, food seems to be the problem since ever, at least for the last half of century. Has the approach changed? Has the idea of development or global aid changed?
Development agencies are not out to breed dependency on aid but rather support countries to build capacities that will make them less dependent on aid. Right now there is a lot of support for agriculture. Farmers are being supported to increase agricultural production, raise their purchasing power and add value to the food they produce through processing and preserving. Mangos for example, grow seasonally. Since they are not processed and preserved, communities are not able to consume them throughout the year. So, it is not that food is not there. If the food is processed, these communities can have access to it throughout the year. These are issues that need to be addressed. Women form the main force of the agricultural workforce but their access to agricultural inputs, markets and technology is less than that of a men.
How does modern technology help here?
There are many countries where farmers through access to mobile phones can communicate and exchange information on market prices.
Is this state organized?
It depends on local situations but in most instances, I wouldn't think it is state organized. It is supported through NGOs and farmer organizations.
Can the internet play a role?
I am sure it can but we have to be aware that a number of these populations are illiterate. It's not just a question of access to the Internet but can the Internet be used at all? The Internet can be a way of accessing information, technology and knowledge sharing. We must educate the children so that we can have a more literate population in these countries. But what is the impact of high food prices on children's education? We know that malnutrition affects learning abilities. Have you ever gone to school without breakfast, hungry? Remember, what hunger does to you. Imagine yourself as a child going to school hungry. You canít concentrate. That is the vicious cycle of malnutrition. The disadvantaged child goes to school, malnourished, with reduced learning abilities, and impaired mental development. The child canít attain even half of his potential in school. He is not stupid, but his learning abilities have been reduced considerably because of his malnourishment. When the child grows into an adult, his achievement in school has been less than his potential. The child doesn't have equal chance to compete in the job market for a good job. If that child is a woman, she grows up malnourished, gets pregnant, is still malnourished and she delivers a malnourished baby. And that is how the vicious cycle continues.
What is your comment on parents who donít take their children to school but put them to work in the fields ?
That is the situation in many countries. Young children are forced into the labor market for the survival of the family. In many instances, it is not because the families don't want their children to go to school but they look at their options. If the child goes to school, then the family doesn't have enough food. Culturally, some families decide that it is better to educate the boy while girls stay at home to work.
What is the picture of the farming population in terms of age and gender?
In Africa, women form a large proportion of the agricultural workforce. In Africa too, most populations work as farmers. Agriculture is the main income for the majority.
Are they going to get rich with the food prices going up?
There is potential for some farmers to increase their incomes because of the high prices. But what about the majority who live in poverty? How are they going to get rich? This is something I definitely cannot answer. There is potential for farmers to improve their situation and income only if they get support. Without technology, fertilizers and land entitlement for women farmers, how can you get rich? The question is how to help farmers to improve their situation.
What can be done?
One thing is to make farming inputs accessible, enable the produce more food and find a market for their food. My expertise currently is in how to support these farmers in their day to day life to improve their situation and that of their family. And one thing I can think of is that so much research has been done to improve agriculture. How can we package the research into farmer friendly information that can actually get to the farmer at the community level? I am thinking in terms of that farmer in that community with his family, not the big farmer. It is very critical to get information to down to this farmer and to support him use this information. How do we increase agricultural production? Here is a farmer who is poor, probably under nourished, but works. But there is the potential to work more, for productivity to rise, if the farmer was better nourished. So you see, it is that vicious cycle again.
As a nutritionist, what role can genetically modified foods play here?
That is a subject of debate. You know how Europeans feel about genetically modified food. I think individual countries that have the right to decide if they want such food or not. I remember Zambia refused genetically modified foods some times ago.
Do developing countries really have this choice?
Well, I cannot sit here and say if they have a choice or not, but I think that yes, they have a choice. Whether poor or rich, you can have a choice.
Economically not philosophically?
I think the choice is theirs.
Would you agree that today poor people are mostly female?
Well, it is often said that hunger and poverty have female face because women are vulnerable, but that is not true. Women are also very strong. It is in most difficult situations that women are resilient. They try hard to make ends meet in the most difficult circumstances and to feed the family. With the high food prices, some women will work longer hours to earn more income for their families. Women who will deprive themselves to ensure their children won't be hungry. So yes, it is true that when you look at global poverty and hunger, women stand out but you must not forget also that there are poor men and hungry men. Among populations that are poor and food insecure, women are the majority, there are 60 % of them among the 850 million chronically hungry. The number of hungry is predicted to rise with the current situation of high food prices.
What does this mean for the societies? More people are hungry, less resilient to illnesses? How do you understand this? Social, natural selection?
Oh, no, please. Everybody has put this issue on their agenda. It will be solved. I really don't think this is a process of natural selection. I am optimistic.
And how do you see it addressed?
There is no single solution. The important question is how we are going to address the short term needs of populations that are effected by high food prices. Governments are working with different organizations on related programs. There are many different things being done now to address the short term needs of populations, and also the governments are working behind scenes to address the situation. So it is a situation that can be addressed.
But in the net sum, is there enough food in the world?
Well, it is believed that we actually produce enough food. But it is one thing to produce food and another to get this food to people. Even within a country you can see a community where a lot of food is being produced but then the next community doesn't have enough food. At the national level, a country can be food secure but people in the villages are hungry. It's about distribution, access, accessibility, so there are a lot of issues facing communities about the access to food. And it is not even just about the high food prices.
Do I understand correctly that food insecurity is highest in the developing world?
Where is the majority of food being produced?
The food in the developing world in produced mostly in the rural environments.
I mean globally. Does Europe eat African bread and Asian rice?
I think you can answer this question. The raw materials are from all over the world. If you go to the supermarket now, you will find all sorts of foodstuff that I would find in Senegal or in Zambia. And if you go to Gambia, you will find mango juice from England or from somewhere else in Europe.
First published in Slovenian in Dnevnikov Objektiv, Dnevnik
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