The World Food Programme (WFP), part of the UN Food Assistance Programme is the largest humanitarian programme and feeds about 90 million people a year. The WFP operates primarily as a kind of international food first aid programme, entering a situation after a disaster or conflict, providing food but also setting up long term assistance programmes. Climate Change issues are playing an increasing role in the work of the WFP, and are discussed in this programme, as are other important issues such as the impact of globalisation.
What is the impact of climate change on food production and distribution?
Greg Barrow: I think it is very fair to say that as far as climate change is concerned, it is felt all over the world. But for us in the northern hemisphere and in the largely developed and industrialized nations of the world, we have so much more in the way of mechanisms that we can use to protect ourselves or insulate ourselves from the impacts of it.
And one of the great and sad ironies about the climate change and its impact on the global population is that, as things stand at the moment, it is largely the industrialized nations that are responsible for the industry that has produced a situation where climate change is having an impact. But while we and these nations are responsible, it is the vulnerable poor people living in developing countries who are the least protected from it and feel its greatest impact.
This is being felt in the areas of the world like the Sahel region and West Africa or the Horn of Africa, in the east of the sub-Saharan continent. This change is affecting the communities that are largely subsistent farmers who are generally, in any given year, producing just about enough food to feed themselves. And it only takes a small change in terms of the pattern of rainfall or an increase in temperature to have a massive impact on their levels of production, and thereby have a huge impact on the nutrition, food security and health of their families.
Should food production and distribution be securitized?
Greg Barrow: I think we should be grateful that governments are taking this seriously. And there have been some recent “wake-up” calls that have really focused the global attention. If we look back to 2008, there was a global high food price crisis around the world that sparked riots in some countries. And in some places, such as Haiti, it led to the fall of the Government. I think this made many governments to realize that this is an issue that needs close attention.
So, I think the good thing we can say is that there is an awareness that this is an issue that can’t be left to sort itself out. That said, I think there is a general consensus that as long as one can keep a close eye on the market, on forecasting where there might be potential problems, trying to limit the impact of market speculation, generally speaking, the free market system has served the world reasonably well.
I think, as we’ve talked, there are sort of game changers here, such as the impact of the climate change and we have to work very-very closely with the communities that live in those areas of the world that are exposed to the punitions effects of climate change, to help them introduce buffers that’d allow them to cope with the ups and downs of changing patterns of weather.
And we also have to address other issues. I mean, I think one of the simplest and the most effective ways of addressing any potential shortage of food is to look at food weight and the amount of food is not just purchased and then thrown away before it is consumed (something like 30% of all food in the industrialized nations is thrown away before it is eaten), but also in the food producing countries, in the developing countries the amounts of food that is wasted after harvest, because there is a lack of storage facilities. Again, that is about 30%.
So, if you look at it that way, you can have a massive impact on the supply of food by taking some fairly simply measures. It is not really rocket science on that front.
Is the way forward to commercialize improvements in infrastructure?
Greg Barrow: It is a very interesting point. Increasingly many humanitarian agencies work in partnership with big private sector corporations on a number of issues. And that is happening. But I think, sort of more broadly speaking, what we can look at is the role of agencies like the World Food Program as a sort of catalyst that creates an enabling environment that then encourages the private sector to come in.
And it may be too much to expect the private sector to address the fundamental issues in Sudan, but, at the same time, it is probably too much to expect an agency like the World Food Program to do everything that is necessary to kick start that economy. But if we can play sort of a catalytic role, creating a sort of spark that generates the interest in greater investments in a country like South Sudan, then there is some hope on that front.
Is the WFP really a world food program?
Greg Barrow: I think the situation is evolving all the time. And what we see now with the splitting of the world into different camps, it wouldn’t necessarily be the same in one year, five years or even ten years time. And I think the thing that you can say about the WFP is that it exists to address the needs of the hungry people in the world, even in some of the fast developing countries, places like Brazil, India and China, with the vast inequalities within those societies.
So, you have growing economies moving in the right direction, but then, within those countries (and this is certainly the case of Brazil) you have the levels of food insecurity and malnutrition that in some cases are approaching what we see in the parts of sub-Saharan Africa. So, we are going to have to work within some of these countries. And we may see a shift of the WFP’s work towards addressing the food needs of the hungriest people in the middle income countries.