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World Food Day 2023: CoE-FS director Prof Julian May chats to CapeTalk

Published October 16, 2023, by Carla Bernardo

On World Food Day 2023, Prof Julian May spoke to CapeTalk about the importance of water for food and nutrition security. Photo Ashraf Hendricks/CoE-FS.

16 October 2023 marked World Food Day, the annual commemoration of the founding of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The theme for World Food Day 2023 was “Water is life, water is food. Leave no one behind”.

As part of the science communication and knowledge brokerage work of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS), director Professor Julian May spoke to CapeTalk’s Clarence Ford about this year’s World Food Day theme in the context of South Africa, and the impact of water – both the availability and quality thereof – on food and nutrition security.

Here are five extracts of answers from Professor May, who holds the UNESCO Chair in Science and Education for African Food Systems, during the interview:

On whether South Africa can respond to issues of food and nutrition security: “We can deliver. We have the skills in the country. We have the resources. Our economy – despite taking a battering from different aspects, continues to survive … we’ve got that resilience that enables us to deliver. We just need the political will. We need the planning. And we need to get on with it. It cannot be delayed any longer.”

On water scarcity in the Western Cape: “What is of importance now is while we have been having not only good rain – but too much rain – we need not to lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, we are always called upon to conserve water. … the basic practices we had back in 2017 (in response to the drought and in preventing Day Zero) … are things that we should keep as standard, whether or not the rivers are flooding.”

On citizens viewing water as an infinite source: “I think wealthier people tend to take water for granted. If you had to collect water from a river and had to walk an hour each day with a bucket on your head, you certainly don’t take water for granted — and that’s the situation for the majority of South Africans … it’s people like myself who tend to take water for granted because I have grown up expecting to turn on a tap and there’s the water.”

On the equal importance of the quality of water: “… we also need to value water that is clean. One of the biggest issues around food security is childhood stunting. This is when children don’t grow as fast as they ought to, and a large part of that is attributed to diarrhoea. So, when children drink contaminated water, or eat food that has been washed in contaminated water, they run the risk of getting ill, they lose weight and, ultimately, they suffer stunting, which is a lifelong condition; after the first 1000 days, it is not something you can recover from.”

On the role of academics in development: One of the things that is being done – and the University of the Western Cape [host of the CoE-FS) pushes this quite hard – is how academics can feed into the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs were agreed to by most countries in the world. They set targets which include “leave no one behind”, water and zero hunger … [UWC leadership is] trying to get researchers to identify work that would contribute towards these goals … It enables us to think, ‘What work are we doing?’, and ‘Are we doing work that matters?’.”

Listen to the World Food Day 2023 interview, in full, here:

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