The Global Hunger Event is Over: What Next?
By Dr. Howarth Bouis
Dr. Howarth Bouis directs HarvestPlus a global research program that develops and disseminates nutrient-rich staple food crops to improve nutrition globally. Bouis is based at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, D.C.
Nothing captures our imagination quite like the Olympics. For two weeks, we remain glued to our TVs, watching athletes from around the world perform at the top of their game and break records. So I echo Gordon Conway’s remarks when I say that David Cameron’s decision to tie a hunger summit to the Olympics was imaginative.
Imaginative because Cameron saw how the Olympics, that celebrate the best of human athleticism and teamwork, could also be used to draw attention to those who will never ever come close to competing in an Olympics event. Why? Because they were given a poor start in life by not getting enough food, or, as the World Food Programme so aptly puts it, not getting “the right food at the right time.”
Biofortification was high on the agenda in London last week, and I am proud of our hundreds of partners around the world who have developed new varieties of staple food crops that are rich in key mineral and vitamins. There are two important reasons we’ve succeeded.
First, we challenged those scientists who said that enhancing nutrient levels in crops must come at the expense of yields. This proved not to be true. In fact, all biofortified crops that HarvestPlus and its partners are developing are not just high-yielding, but have other traits such as drought tolerance or pest resistance built in.
Second, we’ve worked hard since day one to break down the silos between agriculture, nutrition and other disciplines. For example, we’ve sent plant breeders to nutrition conferences and vice versa. This has not always been easy. But without bringing experts from all disciplines to the table to work together, vitamin A crops such as orange sweet potato or yellow cassava would not be growing in farmers’ fields today.
Many argue that society now has the proven methods and tools to reduce malnutrition—and especially hidden hunger—on an unprecedented scale. These have been discussed and debated in many forums, including the Hunger Event, so I won’t go into them here. But the key question is: what is stopping us from using them?
One of the biggest hurdles, as I see it, is within our own institutions. At virtually all levels, whether in national governments, research organizations, development assistance agencies, NGOs, or foundations, silos still loom large; the agriculture, nutrition and health disciplines (or departments) keep one another at arm’s length. These silos have been built up over many years, and as we all know, old habits are hard to break. But without breaking down the silos and pushing beyond our limits, we will not succeed.
As Brendan Rogers, Director General of Irish Aid, said during one of the roundtables at the Event: the science is there; the hard part is building the political will to invest in nutrition. So let’s break down silos, take some risks, and figure out how to truly start working together to invest in nutrition.
There are already positive signs of this happening. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that Ireland will use its upcoming EU presidency, in conjunction with Britain's G8 presidency, to lift prevention of child hunger to top the international agenda. In the wake of the Hunger Event, the EU has pledged to reduce the number of stunted children by at least 7 million by 2025 through its programmes.
According to global advocacy organization ONE, “the starting point to prosperity” lies in each country not just taking ownership of nationally-endorsed agricultural plans, but also, critically, to align with the Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN) movement to help bridge the long-standing gap between agriculture and health. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is also looking not only at models like biofortification, but also nutrition education, advocacy/policy, and continuing research to optimize nutrition outcomes from agriculture. These are just some examples.
Where HarvestPlus stands in all of this – at the nexus of agriculture and health – is seeking to work across sectors to help to reduce anemia, stunting, and other pernicious effects of malnutrition. We understand that biofortification is just one piece of a very large, very complex puzzle that requires unprecedented collaboration and leadership.
The Global Hunger Event exemplified the approach that we need if we are to race, not inch, towards the finish line of significantly improving nutrition by the next Olympic Games. David Cameron broke down barriers and reached out to everyone, from athletes and political leaders to NGOS, scientists, and others -- everyone who has a stake in reducing malnutrition. Collectively, we must now assume this mantle of Olympian leadership if we are to bring down the historic and arbitrary barriers between agriculture, nutrition and health. We must now act on our resolve to end hunger.