Towards zero hunger

Posted on July 27, 2018

In order to meet the food demands of the global population by 2020, the world’s food production needs to increase by 50-70%, with 50% of this growth projected for Africa.  

This startling information was reported by Prof Alice Pell, who was the guest speaker at the University of Pretoria’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) lecture series. Prof Pell, who is the Dean’s Advisor for International Relations in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and for Global Livestock Health and Development in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, spoke on ‘Towards zero hunger: Achieving SDG2’. The United Nations’ SDG2 is to ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.’

Prof Pell explained that the ‘Zero Hunger’ goal was not just to end world hunger but also to achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. “Food security is when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”  

Prof Pell noted that changes in world demographics have had a major impact on food supply and nutritional security since the 1960s, because the global population has increased from three to seven billion; there has been a drastic increase in urbanisation; changes in agricultural production, food processing, marketing and distribution have transformed the food system; while climate change is having an impact on food production. 

According to Prof Pell, a challenge to food security is food waste, estimated to be around 1.3 billion tonnes annually (a third of all food produced). Losses occur during production, harvesting, food processing and at the household level, during preparation and because food is not eaten before it goes off.

Fruit and vegetables are particularly likely to be wasted because they are highly perishable. She explained that 52% of the fruit and vegetables produced in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand is wasted. New processing and preservation methods are needed to reduce waste, to ensure that everyone has access to fruit and vegetables that provide needed micronutrients and fibre without contributing unneeded calories that lead to obesity.

During the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the primary focus was on increasing the amount of protein and energy available to reduce the risks of hunger, reduced learning ability, disease and premature death. As the availability of protein and energy improved, two other ‘burdens of nutrition’ became apparent: deficiencies of essential micronutrients and obesity due to high-energy consumption. She said, “micronutrient deficiency is often called ‘hidden hunger’ because in its early stages, it is difficult to detect, but it affects about a quarter of the world’s population. Although people require 27 different vitamins and minerals, four deficiencies are most common: iron, iodine, zinc and vitamin A, which can cause physical and cognitive deficits and compromised immune systems with life-long consequences.”

Obesity used to be considered a disease of the affluent, but, because of increased consumption of highly processed foods, sedentary lifestyles and large portion sizes, it now is common among all income levels and affects about two billion people, considerably more than those who suffer from undernutrition. Prof Pell said the result of obesity is increased incidence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, which affect quality of life, and health care costs. A recent United Nations study showed that Body Mass Index (BMI), a commonly used measure of under- and overweight, has increased in all 193 countries tested. None had successfully reduced average BMI on a national level. Dietary changes including increased consumption of sugar, fat (from cooking oil and meat) and highly processed foods and low consumption of whole grains, legumes and pulses, and fruit and vegetables have contributed to the obesity epidemic.

“Achieving SDG2 to reduce hunger and malnutrition to zero while promoting sustainable food production is a daunting task that will require modifications of the food system from farm production to household consumption with engagement of everyone, including the private sector, civil society, government and all of us who prepare and eat food. Changing food choices from junk food to healthy alternatives may be our biggest challenge,” said Prof Pell.


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