Thursday, October 28, 2010

Observations from the Global Food Security Conference in Montreal

Heather Davis is the Center for an Agricultural Economy's Graduate Research Fellow. She is monitoring local food systems in both the NEK and Hardwick as well as focusing on gathering community input about Atkins Field at Cooper Brook. Recently, she was in Montreal at the Global Food Security Conference and we asked her to write about her experience and thoughts about her time there. 

Food and agriculture have been hot topics in recent years, and this past week I had the opportunity to dive deeper into international food security issues at the Third Global Food Security Conference at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The focus of this years conference was on nutrition and water challenges as it relates to global food security.

After what was described at the conference as three decades of neglect of international agricultural development programs, recently there has been renewed interest in and recognition of the importance of these programs, as well as connecting agricultural development to improved nutrition outcomes. It is estimated that one billion people on this earth are hungry and the United Nations Millennium Development Goal #1, regarding slowing and reversing the growth of hunger and poverty, is not being met in most countries. In light of this, however, some of the work that I was exposed to at this conference demonstrates the exciting and positive projects, research, and innovations that are happening to address these challenges around the world.

In the past, it had been assumed that increased food security and improved nutrition would automatically follow when there was increased economic growth. It is now understood that the picture is much more complex than this. Whose economic status is improving? Are women targeted in these projects at all? What is the debt burden that small farmers are taking on and what is the impact of this debt? Are there high levels of mechanization of agriculture and what impact does this have upon, not just productivity, but the labor force? What crops are being grown: subsistence and/or cash crops? What is the balance of all of these issues (and more!) that really helps to improve peoples’ lives, food security, and nutritional status?

As was emphasized during the conference repeatedly, in development much attention is now upon small-holder farmers (<5 acres) and women, who are the majority of these small farmers in the world. Supporting women who farm, and not just focusing on farm income, but assuring that the crops that are grown are diverse, nutrient-dense, and are consumed within the household has been shown to translate into better household food security and improved nutrition.

Dr. Timothy Geary, director of McGill’s Institute of Parasitology, spoke to the importance of addressing water-borne pest and parasite problems because these can interfere with nutrient absorption as well as human productivity. Dr. Noel Solomons from the Center for Studies of Sensory Impairment, Aging and Metabolism in Guatemala spoke about research his organization has done that demonstrated that a high microbial environment (unsanitary conditions) negatively effects child and infant growth. Dr. Victoria Quinn, of Helen Keller International, spoke of the successes her organization has had in promoting small gardens and poultry production among women and how that has translated into improved nutrition for their families.

Of course, the picture is still much more complex than this. Soil health is one thing that was not addressed which I think is very important to pay attention to. How can we have nutrient-dense crops when we are farming on nutrient-starved soils? The complexity of addressing issues of food security, both domestically and internationally, illustrates another point that was reiterated throughout the conference: the need for inter-agency, inter-disciplinary coordination in our efforts to eliminate hunger.

Few would argue that hunger is an acceptable thing in this world. No one enjoys the thought of children, or even adults, who are stunted, wasting or dying due to the lack of food - we are more humane than that. So, let’s take the resources we have and the incredible progress we have made through research and experience and make reaching the Millenium Development Goal #1 a reality, then moving beyond that to making poverty and food insecurity a thing of the past.

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