TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
United Nations World Food Day and the International Day for Eradication of Poverty are held back to back on 16 and 17 October; while this may be coincidental there is no denying that hunger and poverty are inextricably tied to each other. To eradicate global poverty we need to address the underlying food insecurity, and to reduce inability to access adequate food, we need to eliminate prevailing inequities and poverty.
Socio-economic reports by international development agencies concerned with improving access to food and eradicating poverty show that the two-way, ‘cause and consequence’ relationship between hunger and poverty creates a vicious cycle that nourishes each other. Lack of an adequate healthy diet leads to malnutrition that reduces economic potential and fuels poverty, which consequently increases the risk of food insecurity.
In a wealthy country such as Kuwait, the prospects of facing hunger and poverty might appear to be a far-fetched notion. But this is not as improbable as many would think. With the country overwhelmingly dependent on imports for nearly all of its food needs, the state remains vulnerable to any long-term disruption in food supply chains. This susceptibility was underscored during the COVID-19 global pandemic, and more recently by the food supply constraints caused by the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
In the event of a major global calamity, such as one arising from another pandemic or a significant geopolitical or environmental upheaval that leads to extended periods of food supply disruptions and price increases, countries such as Kuwait could be confronted with a serious, if not existential, threat to their growth and progress as a nation.
Governments in the past have relied on a strategy of ensuring food security by focusing on building larger food storage silos, boosting stocks of imported foods, and diversifying the countries from where it sources food. While this strategy could mitigate the threat of short-term supply disruptions, it is not a sustainable food security strategy over the long-term.
The apparent food security we currently enjoy could be shortlived and easily undermined by any extended period of food shortage worldwide. For instance, when faced with the prospects of shortfalls, or potential future shortages, in domestic production, food exporting countries are liable to succumb to domestic social and political pressures and ban the export of essential food commodities. This was witnessed early this year when some countries imposed restrictions on their food exports in response to the food supply disruptions brought on by the outbreak of conflict in eastern Europe.
It is indeed commendable that policymakers in Kuwait are finally waking up to this vulnerability and to the stark realization that the country can no longer rely on its oil wealth to guarantee secure and sustainable food supplies in future. In this regard it is noteworthy that recently the Council of Ministers received a comprehensive report from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MoCI) on the country’s prevailing food security status and the measures needed to enhance this.
While the report’s recommendations include tried and tested practices of building more and larger food silos, diversifying the number and regions from where Kuwait imports foods, and bolstering the country’s supply chains by ensuring multiple supply channels, it also recognizes the need to do more. Among others, the report stressed the need to develop an integrated national food and water security strategy based on developing a comprehensive system that enables sustainable production in essential foods.
The study also called for reconsidering the distribution of arable land and lending more support for agricultural holdings with the aim of achieving self-sufficiency in several foods through increasing livestock breeding, poultry and fish farming, as well as improving fodder production in the country. Additionally, the MoCI study advocated strengthening the national food basket by expanding regional and international agricultural investments, and purchasing agricultural land, livestock and fisheries in countries that are willing to rent or sell such land.
However, no matter how attractive the proposal of investment in foreign farming land might seem at first glance, the leasing or purchasing of land abroad for feeding Kuwait remains vulnerable to the same geopolitical vagaries mentioned earlier. In the event of extended food scarcity or other externalities induced by climate change and other factors, there is no guarantee that these lands would not be expropriated by the concerned governments to placate domestic demands.
One option that seems to have skipped consideration by the MoCI study authors would be for Kuwait to fund the development of large tracts of unfarmable land in many developing countries, in collaboration with the indigenous farmers who are currently barely able to eke a sustenance living from these lands. Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) and other state entities that already provide grants and loans for development projects in many countries could divert a portion of this funding for targeted ventures in developing countries, especially in those that enjoy a relatively stable political environment.
Funding from Kuwait, alongside technical and administrative inputs from UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Health Organization, as well as others, could significantly improve productivity of unfarmable land through proactive land revival and restoration programs. Experiential evidence from pilot studies in several countries already show that creative, sustainable programs can sustainably restore productivity on currently barren land.
For instance, it has been proven that the widespread salt pollution prevailing on arid land could be removed by initially planting the area with grasses and shrubs that thrive in a salty environment. Specialized drainage systems or water leaching techniques have also been shown to restore degraded land in a cost-effective manner. While this can be a lengthy and costly process that makes it unaffordable to local farmers and governments, investments from Kuwait could help change the equation.
This multiple- stakeholder collaboration would be an all-round win situation for everyone concerned. It would enhance the lives and livelihood of indigenous farmers, helping alleviate hunger and poverty among them; it would improve the economic prospects of developing countries willing to participate in the venture; and, in the bargain, it would provide Kuwait with food security through its purchase of excess production from these areas, which will be guaranteed by local farmers and governments.
The theme for this year’s World Food Day of ‘Leave no one Behind’ emphasizes the fact that too many people in too many places are being left behind by food poverty. Despite the tremendous achievements the world has attained in food production, millions of people still cannot afford a healthy diet that prevents the risk of them sinking into malnutrition and hunger. But the tragedy is that this need not be so; the world currently produces enough food to adequately feed everyone.
Although numerous challenges exist to feeding the world equitably, most of them are man-made and can be overcome. A major obstacle to food security is the existing inefficient distribution system that discriminates between people based on the inequities in affordability and accessibility to nutritious food. Added to this, are regional conflicts and geo-political upheavals that disrupt food supply chains.
Multiple natural challenges also exacerbate existing food poverty, including global health threats and climate change, which is shrinking and shifting areas where crops can grow, and significantly impacting poor rural farmers and their agricultural yields. In addition to all of the above is the humongous amount of food that goes wasted each year. The world clearly can and needs to do better; we cannot and should not be leaving anyone behind.
The importance of addressing poverty and hunger in order to realize the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is evident from the fact that the first and second SDGs call for ‘No Poverty’ and ‘Zero Hunger’. Also, SDG 12 urges ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’, underlining the need to reduce the tremendous food wastage that occurs worldwide. Target 12-3 of SDG12 aims to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains.
The huge wastage of produced but unconsumed food is not only a major cause of food insecurity worldwide, it is also a significant contributor to environmental degradation. Most of the food wastage usually ends up in landfills where they pose an environmental and health hazard by contributing to contamination of soil and water supplies, and the production of methane — one of the largest sources of green-house gas (GHG) emissions.
Besides raising awareness on food wastage among everyone, we need to find innovative ways to save food from being wasted. Providing unused but still safely edible food to civil society organizations for distribution to the needy in society; rationalizing food consumption, and composting household food waste, are just some strategies that people can employ in their own homes. As we mark yet another World Food Day and International Day for Eradication of Poverty, here are some startling facts that you could ponder over:
The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) annual Food Waste Index for 2021, estimates that food waste from households, retail establishments and the food service industry totals 931 million tonnes each year. Nearly 570 million tonnes of this waste occurs at the household level. The average global household produces 74kg of food waste per capita annually. Incidentally, the index also reveals that the annual average per capita food waste in Kuwait was around 95 kilograms, and annual household food wastage was 397,727 tonnes.
In 2021, over 700 million people were undernourished, of whom around 190 million experienced high acute food insecurity that required humanitarian assistance for their survival. Meanwhile, consumers in rich countries annually waste around 222 million tonnes, which is nearly equivalent to the 230 million tonnes of net food production of entire sub-Saharan Africa.
According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), every five seconds, a child dies as a result of a hunger-related disease, which works out to over 6 million children dying annually from easily preventable causes. Additionally, poverty affects over half the global population, with 3 billion people surviving on less than US$2.50 a day, of whom 1 billion live in extreme poverty of less than $1.25 a day.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted ahead of this World Food Day, “By aiming for better production, better nutrition, a better environment, and a better life, we can transform agrifood systems and implement sustainable and holistic solutions.” This could help promote inclusive growth, long-term development, greater resilience, and a more sustainable world without poverty, and with good food available for everyone.