7 Surprising Facts on Global Agriculture, Food Security, and Farming

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Lindiwe Sibanda discussed the challenge of malnutrition and food security at the Chicago Council's annual symposium in Washington, D.C.
Lindiwe Sibanda discussed the challenge of malnutrition and food security at the Chicago Council’s annual symposium in Washington, D.C.

By Alison Rice

There are no shortage of facts and opinions about food, farming, and the intersection of hunger, health and politics these days.

But at its 2015 Global Food Security Symposium on Thursday, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs addressed those intertwined issues in an international way. Through a series of panel discussions and remarks by individual speakers (including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack), agricultural leaders, researchers, and others tackled the challenge of food security in the U.S. and overseas.

In their conversations, they grappled with the rising worries about child malnutrition and obesity. They wondered how the United States might support agriculture in developing countries in a sustainable way. They wrestled with the question of how to encourage best practices in terms of food production, storage, processing, and preparation for producers and consumers around the world.

These issues obviously aren’t the sort of problems that can be solved in a day, but they do spark plenty of discussion on a wide range of subjects and statistics. Here are seven such numbers, which may generate a few conversations on your farm too.

1. The amount of meat that, when fed to children daily, can double their cognitive capacity: 60 grams

Yet in some cultures, the meat goes to the men in the household, with just the broth for the women and children. “Unfortunately, there are some bad cultures,” noted Lindiwe Sibanda, CEO of FANRPAN, who cautioned listeners not to automatically assume all aspects of a culture’s traditional food values are worth keeping. “We have to revisit some encounters and bring in new knowledge for behavior change.”

2. How much water costs per cubic meter in Germany versus the United States: $3 vs. 75 cents

Water may be a precious natural resource, but the lack of financial reasons to conserve it in many places continues to be challenging for agricultural policy makers around the world. “Does a farmer have an incentive to extract maximum crop per drop if the water is not priced?” asked Sunny Verghese, CEO of Olam International. “Water in Germany costs $3 per cubic meter. In the U.S., it is 75 cents per cubic meter. And water-stressed countries in the developing world have much lower, if not no costs of water.” Until water is valued more accurately, he said, it’s unlikely that farmers and others will invest the time or money in more efficient water-related farming practices.

3. How much food the world wastes each year: 1.3 billion tons.

As leaders try to address the dueling concerns of malnutrition and obesity, the issue of food waste—whether it comes from post-harvest spoilage in the field or an uneaten second helping of mashed potatoes–has become an unacceptable use of precious resources for consumers, policy makers, and producers alike. “When we waste the food, we waste the input,” from land and water to seeds and fertilizers, said C.D. Glin, associate director, Africa region, for the Rockefeller Foundation.

4. Share of children worldwide who are stunted: 1 in 4

This condition, frequently the result of malnutrition, leaves children with serious physical and intellectual deficits. Roger Thurow, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council, told the story of an Ethiopian teenager who nearly died of starvation as a child due to famine. The boy survived, but at age 15, he’s the size of a first grader and just learning his alphabet. “What might a child like this have accomplished and contributed to all of us in society if he was not stunted?” asked Thurow, adding: “We can do better.”

5. How much more a Brazilian earns in his or her lifetime for each additional centimeter of final adult height: 2.5 percent

Why does height matter so much here? Because it’s a marker for health that reveals who has been getting enough good food to eat, explained Dr. Patrick Webb of Tufts University. “Malnutrition kills,” he said. “It stops people being able to fulfill their full potential.”

6. Maximum number of years a U.S. president can stay in office: 8

Unfortunately, turnover in the White House too often affects food security policy decisions as well. The U.S. needs a “food security policy that lasts beyond one president’s administration,” said Douglas Bereuter, who chairs the Chicago Council’s Global Agricultural Development Initiative with former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

7. The year that a severe drought began in the African nation of Mali: 1972

“You can trace back the current conflict in Mali today to the 1972 drought when a lot of families in northern Mali basically lost their entire cattle to drought. These [cattle] were equivalent to bank accounts.  Imagine waking up one day and your bank account was completely wiped,” explained Salif Romano Niang, the co-founder and chief impact officer of Malo, which mills, fortifies, and sells Mali-grown rice in the country. Niang told how that natural and financial disaster proved to have long-lasting political consequences as Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi “saw an opportunity” and began recruiting and training these young Mali men to be his mercenary fighters. “Thirty years later, when Gaddafi fell, these are the guys who came back to northern Mali, destabilized the country, and threatened the stability of the entire region,” Niang said. “If you take that as a lesson, I think it could really help us stress the importance of food and nutrition so we all can live in a peaceful world.”

An AgWeb article