Global effort needed now to prevent planetary food crisis in future - UN WFP head

Famine has always haunted humanity. Even now, in the 21st century it has not been defeated as millions of people remain without sufficient food. Armed conflicts breed the starvation. The UN is waging war on this Horseman of Apocalypse - and 2015 marks the deadline for completion of ambitious goals to cut the number of hungry people in the world by half. What does it take to feed the world? How do corrupt governments and crime hamper those efforts? Will we ever see famine defeated once and for all? We ask these questions to the chief of the UN World Food Program, Ertharin Cousin, on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevarnadze:Ertharin Cousin, the chief of the UN World Food Programme, it’s great to have you with us today.

Ertharin Cousin: It’s an opportunity for me and I thank you so much for giving it to us.

SS: Now, you travelled to some of the poorest countries in the world, and you have experienced firsthand the horrors of hunger. What would you say was the most striking thing you’ve seen?

EC: Well, the most striking things are the ones that everybody knows. You see the babies with bloated bellies, you see children with flies on their eyes, but the stories that I’d like to tell are the ones where people have hope, because we’re providing them food that is necessary and the babies are healthy, and the mothers are able to give birth to children who have a future. We’ve seen enough of the devastation. What we need to do is ensure that we are providing the support that is necessary, so that no child goes hungry.

SS: I’ve heard in one of your interviews, you said that one of the men that you’ve offered food to, complained about the food. Does that happen often and why do people refuse food that you offer if they are starving?

EC: The challenge is that we have a responsibility as humanitarians who are feeding over 80 million people a year, to ensure that we’re not feeding them just the food that we have, but the food that they want. Everyone deserves the dignity of having the culturally appropriate food.

SS: Why did he refuse the food that you gave him?

EC: He refused the bread because he was Syrian, he was in Jordanian refugee camp, and the bread that we gave him was bread from a Jordanian recipe - and he was a baker, and he knew what Syrian people ate, and it was just so easy for us to get right. So, people will eat what you give them, but they want to enjoy it. If we’re going to provide support, and what we’re providing is something as simple as bread, we have a responsibility to give it right. After my conversation with him, we were able to get this man and five other bakers who were in the camp to go the factory with us, where we were making the bread and we got the bread right. Now we’re distributing over 250,000 pieces of bread every day in Jordanian refugee camp.

SS: I know that the goals set by UN’s Millenium Development Goals was to half the number of the hungry people in the world. Would you say there is a country or couple of countries where you have eradicated hunger or completely defeated it?

EC: No, and that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to reduce it by half; now, we’re much more ambitious and the 2015 Sustainable Development Goal that the member states of the UN are now considering are goals by 2030 to completely eradicate hunger across the global community, and we know that that will mean that not only must we increase the quality and quantity of smallholder yields and provide markets to smallholder farmers, but we also need to create the “safety nets” - so that when people have crisis, when there are shocks, there’s access to available food in the country. I’m not naive to suggest that we won’t still have problems in the world, in 2030, that will require us to continue to feed people, but what we must have in place are the kinds of programs, government programs, private sector programs, community programs that will ensure that when crisis does occur - that there’s food available and accessible, no matter how vulnerable or how poor you are in a community.

SS: I have some interesting numbers and research, and I know that you’re the only one who has answers to them: the most actual is that UN says ⅓ of food produced in the world is being thrown away, while one person out of 8 stays hungry. How come? And where does this food go?

EC: The challenge is - those numbers make it sound so simple; we do have waste, and waste at the proportions that you’ve just described, which is why the in the zero hunger challenge one of the tenets of eliminating hunger in the world is eliminating waste, getting us to zero waste. That means different things in different parts of the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 40% of what is harvested is lost through post-harvest handling. It’s lost because of lack of infrastructure to take it from the field to the urban areas where people can buy it. It’s lost because of lack of storage space, so the food rots - it’s hot, and it can’t be stored. In the developed world, in the high-income countries, it’s lost by community, through consumer waste. Think about what we buy and what we throw away out of our refrigerators, and the difference that could make in the life of the hungry person in any country. The challenge is, also, that where we lose food is not where people need food - and so we need to ensure that, yes, we eliminate waste, but also, that we make food available and accessible to most vulnerable people wherever they are in the world.

SS: Like you’ve said, in different countries there are different problems and there’s another interesting research by the Institute of Development Studies that says that developed countries like India and Nigeria, for example are lagging on progress in defeating hunger as opposed to poor states like Madagascar and Guatemala - so I’m thinking, doesn’t economic growth mean eradication of hunger? Apparently not, and how come?

EC: The reality is, if you look at progress in economies, bottom quintile in any country does not necessarily benefit from macroeconomic growth at the country level. If you a vulnerable, poor person in India, in the rural area of India, because there has been an economic progress in Delhi does not mean that you necessarily benefit from that economic progress. What the government in India is now doing with WFP and other organisations is working to address those challenges, because what it requires is that you have special intervention, safety nets program, social protection programs, programs to help smallholder farmers, addressing the challenges of infrastructure that we talked about, with waste. Those are the types of the positive interventions that are necessary to reach that bottom quintile. Economic growth at the country level alone will not assure that the poorest and most vulnerable will end hunger, will end hunger in those populations.

SS: Let me ask you something, why do you think military spending anywhere you look, in any country, is so much more higher than spending on food aid. What do you think of it, personally - I know you’re friend of President Obama. Have you talked about this with him?

EC: No, I don’t, because that’s not my role. I am interested in ensuring that we’ve raised the funds from every government, private sector, individuals, to support the food needs, the agricultural development programs, school-feeding programs, that will ensure that we can provide the support to hungry people. The politics? I deal with failed politics, when governments don’t address the challenges, whether that’s Syria or Central African Republic - and as a result, the vulnerable poor are hungry. So, when I have my 15 minutes with any leader in the world, whether it’s President Obama, or if I have the opportunity while I’m here in Russia, with President Putin - I don’t talk politics, I talk about the challenges of failed politics and ensuring that we can provide the food that is necessary, the support that is required, so no one goes hungry.

SS: In 1965, U.S. National Security Memorandum I read something very interesting - it says, U.S. aid should be used as a political weapon with major assistance going to African friends of the U.S. I’m sure you know: maybe, it has been modified already, this statement? But if it hasn’t how can food even ever become a political tool or instrument?

EC: Food should never be a political tool, and the U.S. is the largest contributor to the World Food programme, and we provide food assistance to those who need it, regardless of politics, and we have never been asked by a donor, any donor, to support a political action in the distribution of our food aid. If we were - we would not listen to it. When I’m in Syria - I’ve been in Syria a number of times - we provide food assistance to both the opposition, those in the opposition areas and also in the government-controlled areas. In the Central African Republic, we provide food assistance to those who are on both sides of the conflict. We don’t get involved in the politics, we address the challenges of the people who are victims of those politics.

SS: So it’s never justified to withhold food aid to those who are in need, right.

EC: It is never justified to force a victim to go hungry because of politics, no.

SS: But then, there is also the other side to the story - for instance, North Korea. It always uses and manipulates international community into giving them food aid and doesn’t deliver on promises. Do you think the world community should continue giving food aid to North Korea?

EC: I’ve been to the DPRK, I’ve met with the leadership there and I’ve been as adamant with them as I am with any other government - that we will provide food to those who are in need of assistance. We have a nutrition programme in the DPRK, where we support those who are the vulnerable, hungry and poor there. We don’t give food to the government, because we don’t get involved - we can’t involved - in the inappropriate distribution of food. We give food through our partners, which are NGOs as well as directly to those who are in need.

SS: The food that you give doesn’t always land in the right hands, for instance, in Somalia, I remember, there was an incident when businessmen took over that food and actually sold it on the market - and you had to actually pull your monitors out, because it was too dangerous on the ground. So, what happens to the programme when it finds itself in the situation where you doesn’t know where the food goes?

EC: When we find ourselves in that situation - you’ve just said it, we were forced to pull out. We’ve had situations where our drivers have been attacked, I have in South Sudan right now... one of my associates in South Sudan who has been trying to work and distribute food was kidnapped and we can’t get him back. It means that we limit our ability to deliver into areas, when we can’t control the food - because we can’t allow the food to fall into the hands of those who would otherwise inappropriately use it, whether they would sell it or use it for political reasons. So, for those reasons, what we always say is we must be given access. I spend much of my time talking to governments, talkings to opposition leaders, demanding access to ensure that we can reach those who are in need.

SS: Do you trust the local governments, because, for instance, there was this interesting Kenyan economist who was saying that sometimes this whole Food-aid to Africa thing does more harm than good, because it breeds so much corruption - because the food is stolen and it’s given to voters or sold on black market. How do you make sure that those in power don’t benefit from disaster?

EC: Let me be very clear. Less than 1% of our food on annual basis is either stolen or diverted. We have systems in place to ensure that we can monitor food, that we can track the food from the time it leaves our warehouse, until it is in the hands of those who are in need. We are now implementing programs where we use cell phones - cell phone technology has penetrated up to 70-80% of even Sub-Saharan Africa, and we use cell phones to ask people: “Are you getting your food?” to ensure that food is going where it is required. The reality is we don’t want to build dependency in any population, which is why we provide food assistance but we also ensure that in the communities that we’re covering we move from food - what we call “general food distribution” where everyone will get it, to targeted food assistance as provided for work, or targeted food assistance as provided to girls for attending school - and we are mindful of the challenges of food becoming a dependency for any population, that is not a goal, it should be something to be avoided and we work very hard to avoid it.

SS: So you basically deal with the population rather than the government officials.

EC: WFP is a UN organisation, which means that we are supported by the member-states. We work with the governments in every country where we are operating, but in countries where those countries are also in conflict, it means that we also work with the opposition groups in those countries as well. What we also ensure is that we work with governments, but we don’t allow governments to control our program wherever we are. That way, we avoid any kind of unfairness or politicisation of our food.

SS: Then there are countries like Sudan, for instance. They export their crops, but they receive huge amounts of food aid - so on one side you have country that produces crops and then, on the other side, the population depends on food aid. I was thinking, that’s a little weird. What do you do to reverse that, because that’s kind of counter-productive…

EC: The largest part of our program in Sudan is not for the Sudanese people in Khartoum, it’s for Darfur, and that’s 80% of our program in Sudan. So, we recognise that in Sudan, the majority of Sudanese people do not require assistance from WFP. You know, there are 805 million food-insecure people in the world, and we only reach between 80-100 million of them on an annual basis. That means, we’re doing it right, we’re targeting the most vulnerable in any country to ensure that those who are most in need of our assistance are those who are receiving it.

SS: Let’s talk GMOs, that’s something that greatly interests me, because I know that some are saying the use of GMOs is actually a way to combat hunger. What do you think? Wouldn’t the damage overweight the potential benefits in the long run?

EC: Well, GMO is an interesting subject. My WFP’s position on this is that we allow the government and the communities where we serve to determine whether or not they are going to accept GMO products, because in many places where we purchase products - for example, in South Africa - their entire maize harvest now is GMO product, and as a result when we purchase product from South Africa, it may be GMO product. Our goal is to let the science lead. The scientists said that GMOs are not harmful, the science has said that it does provide an opportunity to increase the quality and the quantity of the yield of the smallholder farmers, giving them an opportunity to earn more money, send their children in the school and have a better life. Where their communities don’t accept GMOs - we don’t distribute them.

SS: Okay, but what about controlling monopoly? For instance, GMO giant Monsanto already grows, like you’ve said, crops of genetically modified sugar cane, tomatoes, bananas, and other things as well, in 8 countries in Africa. It’s already a leading enterprise in the region. Do you see a danger in Monsanto’s monopoly taking all over African market?

EC: I see a danger in not enough private sector investment in African markets, limiting the opportunity for smallholder farmers to increase their ability, to become more productive and provide an opportunity for them to get out of subsistence farming. What I see with Monsanto - when I visited them, they are working with smallholder farmers, I see women who are employed, I see their children in school. I see Monsanto working with hybrids as well as other types of GMOs - not just GMOs but also hybrids in countries like Uganda. Most importantly, what I see, are companies like Unilever and DSM who are coming in and providing markets that didn’t otherwise exist. What we need to do as a global community, is recognise that there is an entire continent of Africa and South-East Asia and farmers in Latin America that require markets, and we need to encourage private sector to provide those markets.

SS: Just one more question about Monsanto. What do you think Monsanto’s copyright on seeds will mean for African farmers? Wouldn't it stall the local development?

EC: In fact, what I see is the increase in development for smallholder farmers by not just Monsanto but other seed companies from the U.S. and Europe, coming in and providing seeds that are drought-resistant or drought-tolerant, ensuring these farmers have the opportunity to increase the quality and quantity of their yields, making them more productive and providing more opportunity for them to generate more income for themselves and their families. I think the responsibility that we have is to ensure that every farmer, whether they are smallholder, subsistence farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa or farmer in India, has access to the seeds and tools that are necessary for them to provide the incomes that are required to support their families.

SS: Talking about seeds and tools, there are cases in Africa, where the prohibitive cost of fertilizer is actually the cause and the reason why there are so many low crop yields - that also leads to farmer poverty. So, what do you do, how do you pressure chemical companies into providing affordable soil tools, or soil treatment for those who need it?

EC: I’ve had the opportunity to work with foundations like the Gates Foundation and organisations like Kofi Annan’s organisation “AGRA” that are working to ensure that we build the appropriate markets for the inputs that are required for smallholder farmers, as we both agree, to increase the quality and quantity of their yields. Every private sector company wants to make a profit, and you can’t make a profit if the people can’t afford your product, and so where there’s an opportunity to ensure that we can develop the quantities of product and the quality of that product that will meet the needs of the smallholder farmers, but at a price point that they can afford - that’s a market opportunity for the private sector, and that’s the way we need to work with the private sector to ensure that they’re bringing in the right products at the right price to those who need it most.

SS:So, there’s an existential question - on one hand we have technology advances, we have GMOs, we have chemicals, all of that obviously increases yield significantly but also damages the environment. On the other hand, you have the sustainable farming, you have small-scale family enterprises, that evade that danger - but they cannot provide the necessary output volume. So, what’s best for the world security?

EC: Smart agriculture. We need agriculture that’s much smarter that what we’ve had during the green revolution, even that increased the quality and quantity of these yields in South Asia. When we look at the opportunity to increase the productivity of smallholders in Sub-Saharan Africa - there are tools available today that are less harmful to the environment, whether it is diversity in cropping or drip irrigation that requires less of the chemicals that are used to support the harvest of the farmer when there’s not enough water; because over 95% of most agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa today is still rain-fed. We have an opportunity to reduce the amount of chemicals that are necessary by using drip irrigation and other forms of irrigation that will result in a need for less fertilizers and different types of seeds. So, smart agriculture is what we need - and that’s what we at WFP is working with FAO - Food and Agriculture organisation, and IFAD - The International Fund for Agricultural Development - that’s not just bringing the old technologies there that create the kind of pollution that we’re all concerned about, but newer tools that we can invest in, at the right price and right quantities that don’t harm the environment in the way that the old tools did, but that also produce the quality and quantity of yields that smallholders need.

SS: Finally, there’s UN’s FAO report that says that food production needs to increase by 70% by 2050 to actually feed the world’s growing population. Do you think there’s a danger that we could all experience food shortage any time soon?

EC: We could experience food shortage if the climate impacts that we see today in climate change result in reduction in harvest, that leads to the kind of government policies that we saw in 2008, where you had different governments having export bans or limitations on exports of products, that resulted in some countries having food and other countries not being able to afford food, because what was available was inaccessible, because it was too high-priced. So, what we need is the kind of investment in smart agriculture that we were just discussing, that will ensure that fields will bloom on every continent and we will have access to food, and we grow it in a way that ensures that we have sustainable and durable agriculture, so that not only our generations eats - but future generations as well.

SS:Thank you so much for this interview, it’s been great talking to you.