Q&A: What it takes to feed 842 million people worldwide

Value Chains

Q&A: What it takes to feed 842 million people worldwide

In the Tillaberi region of Niger, community garden assistance programs give families fresh, healthy produce to eat and sell even during a food crisis. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

An estimated 842 million people globally suffer from chronic hunger.  Yet each year, 1.3 billion tons of food--one-third of global food production--are being wasted, even where people are starving.

The problems are complex. Everything from cultural beliefs, such as pregnant women shouldn’t eat eggs, to civil wars that prevent people from getting to market, can all have detrimental effects on food security.

Alleviating poverty isn’t just handing out food--it’s tackling the barriers to channels of food to those who aren’t receiving it.  

“We think strategically with communities about how they can produce more food, sell more food, and buy more food,”  said Cathy Bergman, deputy director of the Food Health and Nutrition Technical Support Unit at Mercy Corps.

Q: How do we define food security at Mercy Corps?

Cathy Bergman:  We think of food security as comprising four different aspects. The first is the existence of food in a person’s or a community’s environment. In most cases, there is food.

The next aspect is food access. For example, can everyone get to a market? There can be many issues that prevent access--everything from war to product prices to members of a household being favored for food over others.

The third aspect of food security is utilization. That means utilization in terms of food preparation, and whether your environment supports this in the long term. For example, you need to boil beans for three hours to make them palatable. We’d ask, where do you find the cooking fuel for this preparation? And in the case that you’re chopping down the nearest forest, is this sustainable in the long-term? We also think of utilization in terms of the body’s ability to use food. For example, diarrhea can prevent the body from absorbing nutrients properly.

Lastly, we make sure that all of that is true over time--resilience.

Q: Why does food security matter to Mercy Corps’ mission?

A: Without food security, production goes down substantially. Studies show that without proper nutritional intake between conception and age two, lifetime production falls 20 percent. Thus, if our mission at Mercy Corps is to enable secure, productive, and just communities, we need to address food security.

Q: So, Mercy Corps helps communities move from food security emergency to availability? Can you guide us through that journey?

A: There can be issues with food availability at the local level. The agricultural community in Niger had four bad years out of five, and it grew into a crisis. When Mercy Corps arrived in 2010, there was food in Niger. But the food was not making it to these communities. They had lost so many harvests that no one had money for food. Therefore, traders weren't bothering to travel to the area since they couldn’t earn a profit. Usually, in this situation, we would do a cash distribution, so people could purchase goods in the local market.  In this case, however, people had been insecure long enough that they'd gone into debt. If we had given them cash, their first priority would have been to pay off their creditors rather than buy food. With this understanding, we bought food in the capital and distributed it ourselves.

Availability is always the first thing we look at. Does food exist? But I'll be honest, in very rare occasions is that a problem. The world actually produces enough food for everybody right now. It's largely a question of access.

Q: If there is enough food, why aren't people getting enough?

A: Supplies go where demand is, so it's a macro version of the Niger problem. If there is no demand for rice in Democratic Republic of Congo because no one can afford it, then no one is going to bother to import it. Somebody has to make money. That is what is happening at the global, regional and local scale, and creating a population of chronically hungry people.

Q: What about in case of famine, such as in Somalia in 2011?

A: Food was there in Somalia in 2011--people just couldn't afford it, or they couldn't get to it. Similarly, in Ethiopia in the 1980s, food was there. In fact, a commonly recognized indicator of an approaching famine is skyrocketing food prices. Then it’s cyclical, similar to what we were talking about in Niger--traders aren't seeing the value of taking their goods to a certain market if no one has the ability to buy at the selling price.

Food exists in the countries we work in. The issue is access. Mercy Corps has increasingly been using cash-based programs, including vouchers, even when we need to just get food into people’s hands.

Q: Why are cash or vouchers better than distributing food itself?

A: By using cash and vouchers, we are able to support all the peripheral services, like the transporters who bring the traders and their customers to market, as well as farmers. Importing and distributing foods from the U.S. does not offer the same robust economic intervention that cash and vouchers allow on the local level.

It's worth noting that we almost always give the cash or vouchers to the women because they are more likely to use it as we intend. So, in Kurdistan in 2010, there was some ethnic conflict that was preventing people from getting to the market. We found that 90 percent of that cash given to women was spent on food.

Q: Can you speak about Mercy Corps’ programs having to do with access to markets?

A: Usually we deal with economic barriers to access. Like when prices are just too high. But we also see cyclical economic barriers to access, especially in areas where agriculture drives the economy. Often, there are one or two growing seasons, yielding one or two annual harvests. That means there are only one or two opportunities to make money during the year. In addition, most rural smallholder farmers sell crops because they need the cash for all these other things going on--health care, school fees, etc. Once things are paid for and the money is gone, were they able to hold back anything from their harvest? Probably not. So, there is cyclical hunger every year.

Q: What about connecting farmers to customers?

A: That’s another strategy, called value chain development, which connects farmers to markets and customers. The value chain is the step between producing and consuming.

The value chain could be as simple as this: Somebody grows tomatoes, then they sit beside the road, and somebody else buys one and eats it. We can also make more sophisticated value chains that increase profit for farmers.

For example, as a rural farmer, you could sun-dry tomatoes so you've processed them even before they leave your farm. You've increased the value of your crop against any raw tomato that is going to go bad in two days, yielding higher revenue for the farmer. Canning or drying can also make their crops available for consumption or purchase year round. Plus the additional income opportunity offered throughout the year is desired.

Q: What are your insights about the future of food security?

A: Today, an estimated 842 million people are chronically hungry. That's a lot of people. But food security is improving--three years ago that number was 1 billion.

The other good news is that we do produce enough food for everybody. If we had a completely efficient global food distribution system, no one would be hungry.

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