World Food Day Highlights Global Hunger, But Solutions Bring Hope

Food and Agriculture

By Dr. Charles Owubah

Today is World Food Day, a time to reflect on the foundational role that food plays in our lives, communities, and cultures. We cannot live without food.

While safe and nutritious food is an essential right, sadly, two billion people go without. After decades of progress, world hunger is on the rise again. From 2018 to 2019, 10 million more people became undernourished because of climate change and conflict, and COVID-19 is further exacerbating this crisis. The UN’s World Food Program says more people may die from hunger due to the economic impacts of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.

On the bright side, new innovations for dealing with hunger offer hope in these ominous times. At Action Against Hunger, we are working on innovations that never-before could have been imagined, such as artificial intelligence to help herders in the Sahel find food for livestock and real-time data on global hunger. These and other programs will enable the planet’s poorest communities to more easily predict and prevent hunger and are a needed source of progress toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030.

Artificial Intelligence to Help Herders Feed Livestock

With support from The World Bank, we are using AI and tele-detection technology to help herders in West Africa find food and water for their goats, sheep and other livestock. Across Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Senegal, the Pastoral Early Warning System (PEWS) lets herders know — via local radio, SMS, and bulletins in local languages — where to find fodder for their herds, as well as market prices and animal disease trends. In many of these nations, livestock farming accounts for 40% of the agricultural GDP, making it a lynchpin of the economy and culture. The information, which they receive every 10 days, helps them navigate droughts, heatwaves, bushfires, and even closures due to COVID-19, reaching approximately 100,000 people.

First Real-Time View of Global Hunger

Right now, most of the world’s malnutrition data lives in spreadsheets and reams of paper. We’re in the middle of creating a new app and database to provide the first real-time view of world hunger. Currently in development, “SMART+” will be an all-in-one digital tool to log data when children are screened for malnutrition and provide an aggregate view, down to the “postal code” level. The goal is to detect food emergencies earlier and improve coordination among governments and agencies so that aid can get to people quicker.

Treating Life-Threatening Hunger at Home

COVID-19 has prevented many families from traveling to faraway hospitals for treatment of malnutrition. We have been able to fill in this critical need for urgent care by training health workers and volunteers to treat malnourished children at home. This is not only more convenient and less expensive for families, but also eases the burden on clinics, which are already stretched thin in the midst of a global pandemic.

Even better, it’s more effective. Research shows that 95% of malnourished children treated locally by community health workers recovered from malnutrition, compared with 88% of those who were treated in health centers. These findings prompted the country of Mali to change its entire national health system to reflect this new approach, and now several other countries are following their lead.

Growing Plants Without Soil

In Ethiopia’s Waghimra region, which borders the Sahel, climate change is exacerbating unpredictable rainfall and recurring droughts. More than 90% of families depend on farming or herding, and they now face historically large livestock losses and rising levels of malnutrition. In response, we introduced hydroponics, an innovative way to grow plants without soil. Grass sprouts from a simple raised bed built with wood and plastic and is watered with a nutrient-rich mineral solution that produces richer fodder. This feed nourishes livestock that become healthier, expanding herds and milk production. In turn, farmers can better feed their families and have more to sell, earning income and strengthening local markets. Compared to traditional, soil-based methods, hydroponics uses less water and can produce higher yields in as little as seven days, rather than months.

Every day thousands of children still die from hunger. In fact, when a child younger than five dies, nearly half the time, hunger is to blame. This isn’t inevitable. Innovations abound — both high- and low-tech — that continue to offer hope.

This World Food Day, let’s pause to remember that hunger is predictable and preventable, and we all can take action. Solutions exist, and we must continue to support the world’s most vulnerable until everyone has food to eat.

Dr. Charles Owubah, is the CEO of Action Against Hunger.

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