Global Development Report: We Need to Fix Hunger and Malnutrition First

Policy researchers put food ahead of other global development issues.
A laborer ties a bundle of rice saplings as others plant them in another field in Karjat, India. (Photo: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)
Mar 31, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

The Millennium Development Goals were part of what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history”: Between 1990 and 2015, rates of extreme poverty, child mortality, and hunger were cut in half. Yet, much of this success was unequally distributed across nations, and continuing conflict and displacement—as seen in the current refugee crisis—shows that more work needs to be done before the world is on somewhat equal footing. As the timeline for the MDGs came to an end in 2015, world leaders created new Sustainable Development Goals to continue progress into the future.

The Global Food Policy Report from the International Food Policy Research Institute, released Thursday, focuses on areas needing more research and potential challenges standing in the way of achieving the new SDGs. Though these goals aren’t all strictly focused on food, the report makes the case that developing and bettering our food system might be key to progress in these areas. The IFPRI report notes, “The U.N. reports that the world’s food producers will need to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to feed a projected world population of 9.6 billion.”

Many of the areas IFPRI urges the world to focus on—improvements for smallholder farmers and women, clean water, reducing food waste, and others—are goals that countries, NGOs, and nonprofits have been working toward for decades already.

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“Tremendous progress has been made in reducing hunger and malnutrition,” IFPRI director general Shenggen Fan said. But there are still issues. Fan said of global agriculture, “It’s not climate resilient. It’s still very vulnerable to climate changes. It continues to emit carbon emission. The current food system is not inclusive to women, smallholders and the youth.” Unfortunately, changing climates and a growing population won’t wait for us to fix these issues. Progress needs to accelerate.

Bringing sustainable farming techniques to smallholder farmers or financial support to women are important steps, but Fan believes reducing hunger and malnutrition should be at the top of every country’s list of goals. “When people are hungry and their stomachs are empty, how can you say they are not poor or can be sustainable?” Fan said. “First the people have to be sustainable.”

Countries that have successfully reduced poverty and hunger have done so by focusing on funding social and economic programs for women and small farmers. In the 1970s and ’80s, Fan said, China and Vietnam gave their farmers access to land and markets as well as incentives to grow more food. In less than a decade, hunger and malnutrition were reduced by more than half. In 2003, Brazil introduced a “zero hunger” policy and social protection for the poor; today, fewer than 5 percent of Brazilians are undernourished.

Economic growth for a country as a whole simply isn’t enough to achieve sustainable development goals or create an equitable and sustainable food system. Fan said it’s important to note the type of growth experienced in a country and where the benefits of that growth are going. “In some countries there’s no link between growth and a reduction of hunger,” he said.

He used India as an example: While it has one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, the scourge of inequality is rising along with the economy. “Their progress in reducing hunger is not that great,” Fan said. If the growth comes from the agriculture sector—not just commodity agriculture but improvements for smallholder farmers—“the impact on hunger reduction will be greater.”

The same has happened in many African countries. Had governments reinvested funds received from commodities such as oil and minerals, productivity on farms might have shown more improvement. That, in turn, would have reduced hunger and given new opportunities to some of the poorest families across the continent.