Malnutrition - including over- and under-nutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies are the top contributors to the global disease burden. Globally, 800 million people are under-nourished, two billion are overweight or obese and two billion are micro nutrient deficient.
These were the sobering figures presented today by Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde, deputy director-general for Research, Development and Support in the South African Department of Science and Technology. Presenting the opening address of the conference, Dr Auf der Heyde said the vast majority of the world’s hungry live in developing countries.
“In sub-Saharan Africa, the current rate of under-nourishment is currently around 23 percent. Even though this is decreasing, those levels remain unacceptably high.”
He said new data released by Stats SA indicates that poverty is on the rise in South Africa, with the latest Poverty Trends in SA report showing that, despite a general decline in poverty between 2006 and 2011, poverty levels rose in 2015.
“More than half of South Africans were poor in 2015 with a poverty headcount increasing to 55,3 percent from 53 percent in 2011 … This translates into over 30 million South Africans living in poverty in 2015.”
Dr Auf der Heyde said food and nutritional insecurity will persist in many predominantly poor regions according to the food and agricultural organisation in 2015.
“Soil degradation already affects the amount of land available for productive agriculture, several areas on the African continent are affected by soil degradation, desertification and drought. If no significant improvements are achieved in production practises, the loss of yield might be as high as 50 percent in some African countries by 2050.”
He said the need for environmental sustainability and food security on the continent, combined with the patterns of global population, generates sets of future challenges and opportunities.
“In this context, sustainable agriculture is the foundation of food security and has the potential to secure livelihoods. Agriculture is the single largest employer in the world providing livelihoods for 40 percent of today’s global population and it is the largest source of income for poor rural households. Investing in smallholder farmers is an important way to increase food security and nutrition for the poorest, as well as food production for global and local markets.”
However, he warned that when it comes to food security and sustainable agriculture, “there is no one size fits all”.
“Many interventions aimed to address the challenge of food security have not looked adequately at the complexity of the problem nor the need for locally generated solutions.
“Another reason why solutions to the challenge of food security have proven elusive is the failure to consider issues it from a systemic approach. A food systems approach, from field to fork is needed to find viable solutions.
“In addition, the inter-related nature of the sustainable development goals clearly illustrates a reorientation towards complexity thinking and the need to consider the inter-related nature of various ecological and social systems which intersect and must be considered in relationship to each other.”
Dr Auf der Heyde said science and research are a necessary input to address the scourges of malnutrition and food insecurity.
However, to comprehensively address food security as a socio-economic condition, science and research must be complemented by the necessary structural and political interventions.
“Just as science and research on their own cannot solve the problem, so structural and political reforms will not do so sustainably if their interventions are formulated in ignorance, wilful or unconscious of the facts of the matter,” he stressed.
“In my view this complementarity of science and policy in pursuit of sustainable solutions to socio-economic development challenges, carries with it the dual responsibility for scientists to engage the public and policy makers on the implications of their research and for the public and policy makers in turn to engage with the scientific analysis of the problem and possible solutions.”
Dr Auf der Heyde said conferences such as this are an important platform for closing the gap between science and policy.
“The programme for this specific meeting certainly provides numerous opportunities in this respect. Thank you for your sincerity in organising this conference because you believe your efforts can make a difference to the poor and marginalised,” he told delegates.
As speaker after speaker reminded the conference, food security is a growing global concern. By 2016 for instance, some 850 million people were suffering from some form of hunger. Some 240 million of these live in Africa where about one in four people also suffer from under-nourishment. In South Africa, it’s estimated that between 10 and 15 million people suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition. This for example makes the work of institutions like South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council (ARC) all the more telling, said the council’s CEO Dr Shadrack Moephuli. “Agricultural research is critical towards ensuring food and security for all,” he noted.
Welcoming delegates, conference chair, Professor Lise Korsten, who is co director of the Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of Pretoria, stressed that “no one should go hungry.”
“We can no longer pretend all things are fine when children go hungry and the elderly have a loss of dignity and respect. We have to share our ideas and collaborate to address the many challenges we face. It’s time to break the silos and face the future.”
Professor Cheryl de la Rey, Vice Chancellor and Principal at the University of Pretoria and Chairperson of the National Advisory Council on Innovation, said the conference will allow delegates to “pursue synergies to face the future of food security.”
Professor Julian May, Director, Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape, said it is significant that this is the first time such a conference is being held in a developing country, and in Africa where issues of food security are “of deep concern”. He applauded the fact that half the participants are from Africa.
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