Mary Atkinson in front of painting of the Red Cross emblem

© Matthew Percival/BRC

Mary Atkinson, British Red Cross food security adviser, talks about hunger and malnutrition – an issue affecting more people than the combined populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization).

1. How is the British Red Cross tackling hunger and malnutrition?

As a food security adviser when I talk about hunger, it’s not the sort of hunger I feel when I haven’t had time for a lunch break – it is repeated feelings of hunger from constantly not having enough food and the worry that goes with not knowing where your next meal is coming from. It’s a result of people’s success or lack of it at generating enough income or growing enough food to meet their needs.

So we support people’s livelihoods, helping those in agriculture to grow food and helping people get better yields and better income from their outputs. We also support other income generating activities because hunger is mostly about access to food and not the amount of food that’s available. Most farmers still have to purchase the majority of their food.

Addressing hunger can only be done by achieving food security in the longer term in a sustainable way. In Africa there’s low production per hectare, so we need to make sure people use more productive and sustainable, methods of agriculture production to help preserve the natural assets such as land and water, which are vital for farming. Adapting to climate change is another issue, which can be best done through helping people prepare for and cope with natural disasters such as droughts and floods, as well as adapt to an increasingly less reliable climate, which threatens their ability to get enough food to eat or sell.

2. How can work on tackling hunger and malnutrition be improved?

Pastoralists in Kenya at well with their goats

© Jonathan Kalan/IFRC

Most experts around the world agree how important it is to support small-scale farmers, who represent 70 per cent of poor people in developing countries – that includes pastoralists, who tend livestock. Improving their livelihoods helps take them out of poverty. Also there’s a need to intensify local food production – so people are less reliant on imported food, which has become increasingly more expensive.

We all know prices of food are rising on the global market and the world’s population is predicted to rise to 9 billion by 2050. With many more mouths to feed we need to grow more food using limited natural resources, but with rapidly rising global obesity we also need to reduce over consumption. Food production needs to focus on ecologically green methods to preserve the environment and reduce green house gas emissions of which agriculture currently contributes one third. We need to think about the longer term and ensure approaches to tackle the issue are integrated with public health programming.

3. What are we doing well? What programmes have been successful?

Woman in Lesohto working on a keyhole garden

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

We work with two excellent Red Cross National Societies in Lesotho and Zimbabwe, who are really experienced and skilled in supporting smallholder farmers. They use conservation approaches and encourage growing vegetables in home gardens to provide more nutritious diets.

They also look at the issue of HIV in the communities, as having nutritious food is vital for anti-retroviral medication to work effectively and save people’s lives. The development of keyhole gardens is an innovative approach which started in Lesotho – it’s a less labour intensive way of growing food which makes a huge difference for those with health issues. The gardens can also provide more income from sale of extra food.

We also provide support to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ responses to food crises. We have a roster of people skilled in food security assessments and programme design who we send overseas to give technical support. For example, we contributed to the Federation’s east Africa strategy to help communities who frequently experience acute periods of food insecurity become more resilient in the long term.

4. Certain areas in the world seem stuck in a cycle of hunger and poverty, so why should people donate money to our work? Is it really making a difference?

They are stuck in a cycle due to an ongoing problem of poverty and other issues relating to politics and policy, which we don’t directly engage in ourselves. Our priority is to help the vulnerable. It’s not easy to solve the issue of poverty but we can help people help themselves with the resources they have available to improve their situation. The Lesotho Red Cross and Zimbabwe Red Cross have evidence our support makes a big difference to people and they become more self-sufficient with food and income.

5. Benny Dembitzer said: “We are not talking of small bleeps on the horizon; there is now a permanent state of food shortages affecting between one third and one quarter of humanity. We have to deal with the perfect storm of world starvation. A new approach is urgently needed.” What is your response to this statement?

I think it is a bit misleading as we have surpluses of food even in places where people with hunger live. At the moment there isn’t a food shortage at all, though people lack access to food. We have more than enough food globally, however with another two billion people the supply of food becomes more critical. We can’t carry on as business as usual, in which the west and increasing numbers of richer people in the developing countries consume too much food – we have a problem of excess resulting in high rates of obesity and related diseases, and we throw away around a third of our food. So there is a perfect storm, but it’s to do with both rising hunger and obesity reflecting rising global inequalities. We have to recognise that we are part of the problem and we have to start eating more sustainable diets.

So although focusing on producing more food is important, it is equally important to make the point about poor people living in developing countries having a problem of access to food. We all need to understand that it is not just about supply – access, i.e. money to buy food, is also critical.

Also, intensifying food production has to be done in a sustainable way and take climate change into account. How we do this, is the issue. Beyond 2050 the population will stabilise. We need to prioritise and collectively understand and address this issue with a common approach.

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