“Corona exposes the weaknesses of our nutritional systems"

The United Nations plan a Food Systems Summit - and now the Corona-Virus is dictating the agenda. The Chief Economist of the UN World Food Programme takes stock of the current situation: a conversation with Jan Rübel about pandemics, about the chromosomes of development - and about the conflicts that inhibit them.

In front of a hospital in Liberia, an employee checks the temperature of the outpatients with an infrared thermometer. Photo: Christoph Püschner / Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe
In front of a hospital in Liberia, an employee checks the temperature of the outpatients with an infrared thermometer. Photo: Christoph Püschner / Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe

Dr Arif Husain

Dr. Arif Husain is Chief Economist and Director of the Food Security Analysis and Trends Service at United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome, Italy. He joined WFP in 2003 and since then he has served in many senior positions both in the field and the headquarters. He has also worked for the World Bank and taught at the Hubert H Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. His work focuses on analysing food security and welfare conditions in developing countries to inform humanitarian response. His research interests include application of information technologies to improve humanitarian response; understanding linkages between poverty, hunger, conflict and migration. Arif Husain has a Ph.D. in agricultural and applied economics with a minor in forestry from the University of Minnesota.

 

Mr. Husain, in 2021 there will be a Food Systems Summit. What will be the effects of Corona on the convention?

Corona virus is a wakeup call for the world! It has highlighted the weaknesses in our current food systems that if functioning efficiently would have been able to ensure adequate access to affordable food for everyone. But that is not the case and in fact hunger has continued to rise over the last four years. This convention is an opportunity to recognize that food systems are the X and Y chromosomes of development for most agrarian societies without which populations will remain vulnerable to severe impacts of future diseases including the corona virus.

 

In Africa, the virus encounters weak healthcare systems and fast-growing economies. What do you fear for the summer?

I am worried about poor countries in the southern hemisphere where winter and flu season are slowly approaching. Consider Southern Africa which is home to several poor countries with poor and chronically food insecure populations. They have survived more than their fair share of natural disasters and disease over the last many years. The health systems are in no shape to adequately address any health crisis of a large magnitude. Coronavirus is a disaster in the making unless the international community comes together with the regional governments to help develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to prudently deal with the disease as well as its economic consequences which could be even worse than the disease itself.

 

I don’t believe most people even understand what is meant by food systems.

 

Can you already estimate how the virus will change development cooperation?

This is uncharted territory. Coronavirus is causing both a demand and supply side crisis at the same time and at a global scale which makes it truly unprecedented. This crisis clearly highlights the need for enhanced development cooperation because of the inter-connectedness of our world. We need a collective solution to a global problem which starts with making an affordable treatment available for all regardless of where they reside. But till then it is about saving lives and also protecting livelihoods.

 

Do you see the risk that people will lose interest in “Food Systems” as an issue?

I don’t believe most people even understand what is meant by food systems. But they do know the meaning of good quality and affordable food at the market. We only run the risk of people losing interest in food systems If we are unable to clearly explain what we mean by food systems.

 

And where does the WFP position itself within the process of the summit?

Arif Husain: We together with the Rome based food agencies are fully committed to the summit. This is a step in the right direction. Our goal is to enable people not only getting to zero hunger but actually staying at zero hunger. It is also about eliminating poverty: 80% of the people we talk about live in the rural areas and many depend on broken food systems. So unless we help improve these food systems from all sides including production, consumption, nutrition, supply and demand to make sure that affordable food is available – we won’t be able to get to zero hunger by 2030. So yes, this is very important to us.

 

Snapshot from Niger: There is not enough food for everyone. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt
Snapshot from Niger: There is not enough food for everyone. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt

 

What has to happen so that this summit is not just another event?

My sense is a little bit different than other’s. In a globalized and connected world, actions and reactions are no longer in the same place. It is about moving away from ‘it is somebody else’s problem’ or ‘this is Africa’s problem’. We have collective problems. When we understand that, we can talk about collective actions. Hence, you have to work with national governments and national institutions to make sure that whatever is done is sustained.

 

Which role is the WFP taking in order to contribute to a world without hunger?

WFP is in a very unique position in that sense. We work on both the demand side and the supply side. We assist 80 to 90 million people each year. And in 2018, we bought food worth 1,6 billion dollars – of which about 600 million was in Africa. So, we have this supply side footprint as well which means that we are present in rural communities working to assist people there but also we work with millions of farmers to improve their supply chains, for example to connect them to markets and bring them into the viable economic stream. This is a big competitive advantage of WFP relative to our partners.

 

Hence, the others should listen to you more?

We should all listen to each other and come together. This is why partnerships matter so much and why we should involve the private sector, the governments, the local communities and the UN system. Whatever then is designed, will be holistic: There are many examples of countries going back for decades which have beaten hunger and poverty. You can go back to Japan, to South Korea, to China, Ecuador, Ghana or Rwanda. We can learn from them. The things they have done, I call it my recipe.

 

What is in the recipe?

There are five ingredients. Number One is investing in the empowerment of women, they form 50% of the labor force in the agricultural sector – unless you don’t use this you work with half a body. Second is to invest in children’s nutrition, particularly in the first one thousand days; research shows that children that were not well nourished during that time frame find it extremely difficult to reach their full productivity potential as adults. The third thing is investing in education and skill trainings. We are living now in the age of automation, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, so if the labor force in Africa or in Asia is not ready or the jobs they were ready to do are now better done by machines, then what happens to them? That is why skills training is critically important in the 21stcentury. The fourth factor in my head is investing in rural infrastructure, hence building roads, electrification and internet—bringing the services of cities to rural areas. And the last ingredient is putting money into communities, into grassroots. Just like in rich countries when there is a recession, they give tax credit back to the poor people because they know that they spend this money which will then reignite growth and employment– the same applies in poor countries and regions.

 

And do you think all this can be cooked in ten years? 2030 is ahead …

Probably, this can’t be done in ten years all over the world. But can we get to a better place from where we are right now by doing this? Absolutely. Look at China, how they got over one billion people out of poverty. Or think of Burundi and Rwanda which were at the same state 25 years ago: Now, Burundi is pretty much where it was 25 years ago, while Rwanda is way ahead – how did this happen? Of course this will only work if you have political stability, political will and good governance!

 

But in recent years, global hunger has actually increased ...

Here is the problem. And this is the sad part. Today, there are 821 million people who go to bed hungry, regardless of any shocks, that’s just life. We call this chronic hunger. You have another 113 million people who are suffering because of some sort of a shock, like conflicts, wars, droughts, earthquakes. Both numbers are increasing! A vast majority lives in conflict affected countries. There are 149 million stunted children in this world which means that they haven’t grown enough for their age. 75% of them are living in conflict afflicted countries. We spend 80 percent of our resources in conflict affected countries. Unless we don’t resolve conflicts, we don’t resolve hunger.

 

What can rich countries do in order to ease conflicts in poor countries?

Well, they can do more. In 2018, they signed the UN resolution 2417, this is the first time in 70 years that the security council came together and basically said: Yes, conflict causes hunger and yes, starving people is a war crime. There is now a clear recognition that we have to solve these global conflicts because the consequences of those are affecting rich countries, too. Action and reaction is no longer in the same place…

 

Drought disaster in Somalia: Refugees are waiting for rice rations to be distributed. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Spiegel
Drought disaster in Somalia: Refugees are waiting for rice rations to be distributed. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Spiegel

 

So, what could be done?

First, we need political commitment to end conflicts. And tell conflicts are resolved we must continue to assist people in their own countries or regions. We have done so much work on this: Globally speaking, people don’t like to leave their homes. If they are forced to leave, then they’d rather be close to their homes. Hence, they should be assisted when they are near their homes, for example in neighboring countries – think of refugees leaving South Sudan and coming to Uganda or of Syrians entering Lebanon and Jordan. Assist them there! It is cheaper and this is what they want.

 

 

Conflicts are fought by men. Should the next ten years become women’s years?

That’s why we call them man-made conflicts! Women deal with conflicts differently both at home and at work. We as a global community can’t afford to continuously pay the price of wars which now often transcend generations. So, Yes I am certainly willing to give women a chance.

 

 

Not only global hunger has increased – food insecurity has increased, too. So what kind of impetus should the Food Systems Summit provide?

My sense is that we have to stop debating climate change and we have to start talking about the real impact of climate change on the ground. Today, there are about 213 climatic shocks every year compared to 100 climate shocks about 20 years ago; 51 countries either experienced an early or delayed start of the agricultural seasons or the lengths of these seasons actually shrunk. This matters because say if you were a smallholder farmer who used to plant seeds in April but now rains don’t come until May or June – what happens to your seeds? Say you used seeds that matured into crops in four month but now the season is only three months—what happens to your crops? Can you plant a second time or use new seed varieties? For a smallholder subsistence farmer, that is very difficult. These are the real types of real things which are happening out there. We need to fix this. This is the biggest thing to improve food security. The food systems need to transform.

 

 

Is there a shared understanding about what is meant by food systems transformation?

Not everywhere, but people may not say ‘food systems transformation’, they may name it ‘climate adaptation’. The bottom line is that we need to do things differently because weather is changing. There is something we can do: In the seventies people were worried that we would run out of food, and we didn’t. In the nineties we were worried we would run out of oil, but we didn’t. The point is that when we act now, we not only save lives today, but we prepare for what may come in 20 years. The second thing is I think we don’t pay enough attention to food waste. In the world we produce 4 billion tons of food every year. Of that, one third is wasted. That waste costs 750 billion dollars each year, and the environmental costs of food waste are not part of this calculation. Research shows that wasted food emits about 3,3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent in greenhouse gases, which is the third after USA and China. It uses about 250 cubic kilometers of water, which is three times the size of Lake Geneva. And it uses 28% of our total agricultural land to produce the food we are throwing away. Food waste is apolitical. So why are we not talking about food waste the same way as climate change? Why haven’t we done huge campaigns on this?

 

  

The nomination of Agnes Kalibata as Special Envoy for the Summit has been criticized by several NGOs. Rightly so?

Well, I don’t know. I think she is a decent and committed person, I met her several times. She has the expertise for sure. I am not a politician, but I say: Let’s give her a fair shot. Frankly, this is not an easy thing for anybody. By the way, it is not the person that succeeds – it is the team behind the person that succeeds. Earlier, we said that women can do things better. So, now it is Agnes’ turn.

 

 

Are you still optimistic fighting hunger?

I am, but we need to make a lot of noise that hunger in a connected and globalized world is fundamentally wrong. There is no need why it should happen. What is worrying me, too, is that there is lot more conflict than in 2003. I remember when in the WFP, it was in 2005, our executive director wanted to do an exercise in order to see if we are ready to help in three Level-3  emergencies at the same time. Everybody asked: ‘What is wrong with him? That is never going to happen.’ Last year, we dealt with over seven.

 

Consequences of the drought in Somalia: this refugee child suffers from diarrhea. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Der Spiegel
Consequences of the drought in Somalia: this refugee child suffers from diarrhea. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Der Spiegel

Über den Autoren

Dr Arif Husain

Dr. Arif Husain is Chief Economist and Director of the Food Security Analysis and Trends Service at United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome, Italy. He joined WFP in 2003 and since then he has served in many senior positions both in the field and the headquarters. He has also worked for the World Bank and taught at the Hubert H Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. His work focuses on analysing food security and welfare conditions in developing countries to inform humanitarian response. His research interests include application of information technologies to improve humanitarian response; understanding linkages between poverty, hunger, conflict and migration. Arif Husain has a Ph.D. in agricultural and applied economics with a minor in forestry from the University of Minnesota.

 

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