Tackling hunger weighty task

MONTREAL – When McGill University assembled panels of international experts to discuss world food stability at a three-day conference last week, the goal was to arrive at answers.

However, speeches and panels at the conference mainly illustrated how vast and intractable the problem seems to be.

Close to a billion people are considered chronically food insecure and the number is growing by tens of millions because of drought in the Horn of Africa and a 33 percent spike in food prices.

International agency officials offered hope that jargon-filled processes and plans about collaboration and government investment would make a difference.

There were some reports or predictions of progress.

Tufts University food and nutritional policy chair Will Masters said there are encouraging trends.

In Asia, slow improvements have been made over 30 years in poverty reduction and food stability.

“Africa tends to parallel Asia but 20 years later,” he said. “Long-term trends promise gradual improvement.”

Dudley Adolph, chief director for farmer support and development in the Western Cape area of southern South Africa, said the situation is looking up in his area.

“Fewer people are hungry now than at any time in South African history.”

Aiden Senzanje from the South African University of KwaZulu Nata complained that all the news headlines from the Horn of Africa were gloom and doom, but then laid out a litany of problems in the area that included land tenure problems, a poor soil base, sub-par production practices, war and regular natural calamities.

And then there is official amnesia.

“We seem to know what needs to be done, but time after time we are caught unawares,” he said.

A presentation on persistent problems in the Horn of Africa, where the current food-related humanitarian crisis is unfolding, referred to persistent low productivity, small subsistence land holdings, little care of the land, weak farm organizations and government neglect of rural issues and investment.

Seventy million of the region’s 160 million population face chronic extreme food shortages.

And from Guatemalan academic Ottoniel Monterroso came a story of a Central American country that produces enough food to service its people and yet suffers from some of the highest rates of food insecurity and malnutrition in the world.

“At the national level, food availability is not a problem in Guatemala,” he said. “Yet more than 25 percent of the people are undernourished.”

He said the problem is in the Highlands where rural and indigenous populations lack access to adequate food.

“We have two countries in Guatemala,” he said.