Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Food Security Around The World

Food Waste
This morning I got up real tired. The Minnesota cold which is currently hovering around 5 degrees is exceptionally tough on my African bones and the chills penetrates my feet and slowly travel like an unwelcome passenger right up my spine. For lack of nothing to do and fed up with listening to a lot of Naija music compilations, I decided to take out the trash. When I opened the dumpster, I was amazed by the sheer amount of food thrown irretrievably into that garbage dump. There were whole chickens sides of chicken, barbecued meat barely touched, lasagna, pizza slices, rice, Ethiopian injera, corn bread, mashed potatoes, you name it.

While staring in awe at so much food going to waste, a sudden realization hit me like a lightning bolt right in the middle of my gut. There were thousands of families all over the world this Christmas who had no food or very little to eat! Looking at this terrible waste and considering the total number of garbage cans and dumpsters in America, the realization that there were children all over the world; in India, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and even America who barely had a bite to eat made me very sick to my stomach.

The past decade that ended with a focus on global food insecurity due to rising food prices and shortages in many areas of the world created the largely false impression that the food insecurity in the world is a supply problem. A lot of people believe that the food problem around the world is simply a result of rapidly growing populations outpacing the food supply. Looking into the dumpster this morning made me realize that this was very far from the truth.

Honestly, the current food problems around the world is more of a distribution problem than an agricultural production problem. The United States of America alone probably produces enough food to feed the whole of Africa each day of the year. By November 30, 2011 annual egg production in USA was 91.9 billion eggs. Given the fact that world population was 7 billion in the same year, USA alone had produced enough eggs for every individual in the world to consume 13 eggs each, and America is not even the largest egg producer in the world. The top honor goes to China where 45% off all the eggs produced in the world are laid! USA is a distant second.
So Much Waste

Between China, USA, Russia and Canada, the four countries alone produce enough food per year to solve over 65 percent of the world's food problems and that does not include any of the agricultural giants of Western Europe and the Agricultural basin of Australia, or even Africa where almost 2/3 of the population seem to be engaged in farming. Of course my analysis has left out giant food producers like India, Burma, Thailand, Israel, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, and many other producers in South America, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Asia.

Working from the hypotheses that the current food problems around the world are problems of distribution rather than output is extremely useful, as it implies that if distribution rather than output problems become the focus, then food insecurity around the world can be tackled and alleviated in the near or short term, at least theoretically, by focusing on the elimination of the geographical, geopolitical and logistical barriers to the distribution of food around the globe. This position is really encouraging as millions of dollars that are currently being spent on inefficient food production methods could be diverted to further explore efficient distribution methods, while increased output becomes a long term focus.

The question then becomes how to efficiently distribute food around the world, from areas of plenty and surplus to areas of acute shortages. The answers to this question would address such diverse areas as food processing, transportation, trade agreements, energy, road and rail infrastructure, international politics, international conflicts, and many other variables.

The Irony

The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa where in recent history acute food shortages have become endemic, need to first examine the internal barriers to the efficient processing, storage and distribution of food that is locally produced. I was born in the Eastern region of the small West African country of Sierra Leone where the majority of the people are subsistence farmers. Unfortunately in that part of the country, much of the farmland has been taken over by cultivation off cocoa and coffee for export, rather than the cultivation of food that is consumed locally. But even in this scenario, enough rice, cassava, bananas, oranges, potatoes and mangoes are produced locally to address some of the severe food shortages experienced between harvests. The problems of eastern Sierra Leone are problems of food preservation and local traditions that are essentially wasteful. At the peak of the fruit season in my home town of Segbwema and most places in rural Sierra Leone, the areas practically reek of the smell of rotting mangoes and oranges, as our people never developed a culture that regards these essential commodities as real food and consequently never devoted much effort into looking for ways to process and store them for future consumption. In rural Sierra Leone, there is only one 'real' food and that is rice, period. While people in the urban areas may diversify their food basket, rural areas especially in the east only use other food stuff as space fillers between rice meals. In a lot of these areas, it is essentially rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for dinner. The only difference between the three meals is how it is prepared. In a lot of cases, left over rice from the previous day becomes the morning breakfast.

When during the colonial era and the decade after independence the railway existed in Sierra Leone, most fruits and other perishables were just dumped on trains and transported to urban areas in Sierra Leone for sale. The removal of the hinterland rail system removed a very cheap form of transportation and over the years it became increasingly expensive to transport perishable agricultural commodities from rural to urban areas. As rural folk do not consider mangoes and oranges as real food, it is disheartening to even imagine the millions of metric tones of cocoa yams, mangoes, oranges, bananas and other perishables that simply go to waste as the food processing industry is virtually nonexistent in these areas of Sierra Leone.

The period following harvest in Sierra Leone is the period of traditional initiation rites that represent cultural transition from adolescence to adulthood. These initiation rites may extend over periods and could involve months of festivities that task the families heavily, depleting their food reserves. For families that may have two to three children initiated in a particular year, by late January food runs out and they become prey to money lenders and produce agents who may give them rice in exchange for future cocoa and coffee produce.

So the first attempt at tackling food insecurity in an African nations like Sierra Leone should be focused on improving food preservation, especially of perishables and a massive education campaign to convince the population that rice is not the only food and that there are local alternatives that are far superior to rice- good luck with that! The education piece should also emphasize the need to prevent wasteful use of food during traditional initiation periods by either shortening the length of these periods or reducing their frequency. A country like Ghana has taken food preservation very seriously and it is now very common to see cans of perishable products from Ghana on sale in many African and Asian stores in America and Europe.

On a global level, more effort should be made to improve existing distribution methods and investigate better means of distributing commodities between nations. In Africa the focus should be on completing international highways, developing cross continental light rail, improving waterways, etc. This will facilitate the movement of goods and services between African nations.

African countries will also benefit a lot from increased regional integration not only in name, but in practice. Currently, in spite of all the rhetoric there are substantial barriers to the movement of goods and services between African countries, even in regional trading blocs such as ECOWAS. Even with the existence of the Mano River Union between Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone movement of goods between these three sister countries is hindered by considerable man made obstacles. Bribery and corruption on the part of custom officials, traders and security personal still present major obstacle to food distribution in these countries.

On a transcontinental level, barriers to the movement of food need to be substantially reduced in future trade agreements. Research should be made into using more economical means to transport goods. Developing hybrid engines not only for cars but also for ships and cargo planes will substantially reduce the cost of transportation and have a positive impact on the fight to keep food prices low. Efficient models of transportation that will minimize distances also need to be developed.

In conclusion, the food problems around the world can substantially ad urgently be addressed by improvements in the distribution of the existing food supplies and facilitating their their mobility from areas of surplus to areas experiencing shortages, without reducing their quality

Sheku Sheriff
Segbwema blogger

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