Development agency urges radical approach to food security

By agency reporter
October 16, 2008

US-based international development and relief organization Church World Service is calling for concerted and urgent action by world bodies, governments and aid agencies to attack hunger, malnutrition and the continued toll of high food prices.

CWS is arguing for what it calls “a direct and cost-conscious approach that deals at the same time with immediate crises and long-term, sustainable food security levels.”

It points out that this year’s international World Food Day finds both the developed nations and the globe’s poorest battling climate change punishments to agriculture, on top of being mired in a world food crisis now further drained by an international financial meltdown not experienced since the Great Depression.

The New York-based organization is urging two immediate points of focus: First, bolstering the climate change-adapted local agriculture capacities of poor farmers. Second, immediately expanding the provision of micronutrient supplements and so-called ready to use food products (RUFs), to arrest the growing rate of malnutrition among some 178 million small children worldwide­ 20 million of whom are severely malnourished.

“There are no magic bullets to the food crisis. Complex causes require multiple solutions,” says Church World Service Executive Director and CEO the Rev John L. McCullough. “But now, more than ever, we must prioritize keenly.”

He continues: “The most urgent of these priorities is malnutrition among urban and rural poor, among refugees, among small children. Malnutrition can be addressed quickly, realistically and in a manner that’s economically advantageous."

“It’s not just about ‘more food,’ it’s about better quality food, better nutrition,” said McCullough. “The most immediate and direct solutions are to expand the provision of nutrition-rich ready to use foods (RUFs) and supplements to combat malnutrition, coupled with more livelihood and agriculture programs that help poor rural farmers successfully grow nutritionally diverse crops even in the face of climate adversity.”

The United Nations is focusing this year’s World Food Day on the challenges of climate change. From temperate to tropical and arid regions, agriculture is strained by climate change stresses. The toll on food stores­ and, ultimately, human health and nutrition­ is devastating for rural farmers in developing countries, who are historically at deficit even for farming tools.

With some training and few provisions, “grow locally, sell locally, buy locally” takes on greater, measurable and repeatable meaning for the poorest in poor countries, says CWS’ McCullough.

“This is basic economics for governments in developing countries as well as aid suppliers,” said McCullough. “If you don’t have to import food aid, you don’t have to pay transportation costs.”

In the past year, the lower price of the dollar has significantly affected food aid programs by the World Food Program and by US-based non-governmental organizations.

“The role of non-governmental organizations is even more vital now,” McCullough said. “They are now shouldering a lot of the responsibility for the experiments, research and innovative but inexpensive agriculture techniques that even the poorest farmers can apply in erratic climate conditions. The international and country NGOS are in the best position to increase that work in the future,” he said.

McCullough said the world must continue to turn to the United Nations and other world bodies for longer-term strategies on food security and basic nutrition, but, “By dint of size alone, they work too slowly to get these things done in the short term.”

CWS supports sustainable agriculture programs and training in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Central Europe that share soil conservation and composting techniques, water conservation and flood mitigation measures, and provision of open-pollinated seed stocks adapted to climate-stressed regions and which, in turn, provide seeds­ for free­ for next season’s planting.

In Nicaragua, CWS assists communities, including indigenous farmers, who are generating new food security despite increasing droughts, through training, crop diversification, improved livestock management, long-term soil improvements, capturing rainwater for irrigation, micro-basin management techniques, energy-efficient stoves that reduce the use of firewood, and seeds best suited to the region.

CWS also is stressing the rapid paybacks and economies of micronutrient supplementation for both children and adults, to combat existing malnutrition and prevent further deficits. The majority of the world’s 178 million malnourished children live in just 36 countries. A third of the world’s population suffers from micronutrient deficiencies, especially children, a situation now aggravated by the current food crisis.
For small children who are moderately malnourished, multivitamin and mineral powders and ready to use foods (RUFs) effectively provide micronutrients such as iron, zinc and Vitamin A, which are necessary for healthy body-mind development in infants and toddlers as well as for ongoing health in youths and adults.

Says CWS’ McCullough, “To give small children six months to age two a proper start in life costs only about US $125 per child for nutrition-delivering, ready to use supplemental foods like Plumpy’doz (a vitamin- and mineral-enriched paste of milk and peanuts). Individual, daily dose-sized ‘sachets’ of micronutrient powders are particularly helpful for moderately malnourished small children. They cost on the average about [U.S.] three cents each and are added to foods the children already eat. It’s a food aid bargain.”

In Indonesia, CWS is working in partnership with the H. J. Heinz Company Foundation to provide Heinz Vitalita brand multivitamin and mineral supplement powders in regions of the country recently identified where infants and toddlers are experiencing critically high malnutrition rates. Vitalita costs just a penny and a half to produce.

“It’s not only about saving small children now. It’s about preventing a lost generation. Far better returns than the stock market’s offering right now,” he said.

While Church World Service is urging governments, the United Nations and private lenders together to commit more money to rural farming programs, the agency is similarly urging renewed focus on livelihoods training to help the urban poor generate incomes so they can afford to buy food that’s increasingly out of reach.

“Rapid expansion of those programs can provide families a measure of security,” says McCullough, “as they continue to reap the whirlwind of rising food prices and runaway biofuel agriculture where it is taking the place of food crop production.”

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