World Food Day 2013 – A Challenge of nine billion mouths

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by Tuuli Orasmaa

World Food Day 2013 was once again celebrated on 16th October for the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO,  of the United Nations. For the third time the University of Geneva organized an event dealing with this topic, this time in collaboration with the FAO, the World Food Program (WFP) and Swissaid Genève.


The title of the event, ‘9 billion habitants by 2050 – How to feed them in an equitable and sustainable way?’ included both the fundamental issue FAO is working on – how to feed the world –  and the current trend of approaching development from a sustainable point of view. Indeed it should be acknowledged that we really need to look further into the future. In a few years times there will be around two billion more people to feed. The four speakers of the evening had a tough topic to discuss.

“First, you have to have enough to eat and be in a good health.”

This is how an anonymous family farmer defined development in an interview from 1956 with Angelo Barampama, the speaker representing the University of Geneva. The famous Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agree with this farmer, since eradicating extreme hunger is in the center of the first goal – in addition to ending extreme poverty. The ambition to halve the amount of undernourished people[1] is “within reach”, according to the recent MDG Report[2]. Still it is not time to celebrate yet: One out of eight people remains undernourished despite the progress. [3]

An interesting point ,made by Fatiha Terki, a policy officer from the WFP, was that hunger is not the only indicator of malnourishment. Arising problem in the emerging countries are illnesses caused by overweight and an imbalanced diet. This is something we often tend to forget. According to the World Health Organization, the number of overweight children is three times higher in so-called developing countries than in the prosperous ones.[4] Still, Terki reminded that this is not necessarily due to over nutrition in terms of quantity but a question of quality. A healthy diet is often more expensive. Fruits and vegetables cost more than fast food. It seems like there is enough food available for all7 billion of us. However,  not only do we have to balance its unequal distribution but also ensure that good quality food is produced and traded.

Focus on smallholders

Charlotte Dufour from the FAO called for concentration on the local level. ‘What is fundamental is sovereignty. The independence of producers has to be maintained.’ Indeed, around 80 percent of the food supplied in Asia and Africa is provided by smallholders.[5] Now that production and farming is much more capitalized, their independence is undoubtedly threatened. But how to secure this independence? The arbitrary land tenure systems and low levels of organization of farmer’s families make them an easy target for big players of agribusiness. If they cannot protect themselves, who can? Or more realistically, who is willing? The big players – foreign companies- do not have in interest in this. As to local governments, the profits from land sold to agribusiness seem a good deal to them and the desire for foreign investments outweighs long-run plans for food security. When it comes to us, the donor countries, a difficult task is to make sure our companies are created to receiver’s special needs, not to our national interests. Even international organizations are not completely neutral: as Dufour stated, the FAO serves its member states and thus it is not an independent actor.

A team game

It is certainly worth asking, who should act? The participants representing various institutions explained well that everyone has to play a certain role in the game: international organizations, the private sector, universities, municipalities[6]. And then there is us: The consumer. Both Dufour from FAO and Christian Frutiger representing Nestlé agree on the impact of consumer choices. Frutiger noted that if we really want to enhance the producer’s living and working conditions we have to be ready to pay a certain price. Not a lot of us are.

In order to achieve the best results, the private sector and the consumers must play the same game. A conscious demander needs a conscious supplier, offering sustainable products. Frutiger, who works for the public affairs department of Nestlé, has a clear opinion on the current situation: ‘I think the food is far too cheap. The stores are selling whatsoever for ridiculous prices.’ But how to change the costs to a level achievable by low-income consumers (yes, they exist in the Western world, too) but make them rewarding enough for the producers? And more importantly, how to convince the consumers to choose a pricier but ‘sustainable’ product?

Change of habits

Now that we know the problem, it would be irresponsible to carry on without changing anything. It is time for a requisitioning our habits. As we saw earlier, everyone has a move to make: smallholders, agribusiness actors, governments in emerging and prosperous countries and we – the consumers.
So what can we do? You could eat your lettuce and use your cream before they go bad . We could have meatless Mondays. Or why not ask our favorite restaurants to buy local. And spread the word: Encourage your friends and families to do the same. This is already a good start.


[1] « Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.”

[2] United Nations (2013): The Millenium Development Goals Report 2013

[3] United Nations (2013): The Millenium Development Goals Report 2013

[4] Unicef-WHO-The World Bank (2011): Child Joint Child Malnutrition Estimates – Levels and Trends

[5] FAO (2012) : Smallholders and family farmers – Factsheet

[6] According to the mayor of Geneva Sandrine Salerno, 0,7% of the city’s budget is targeted to “international solidarity”. / Welcoming speech 16.10.2013

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