World Food Day Highlights Global Hunger, But Solutions Bring Hope
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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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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