World Food Week: A call for action on food and nutrition security for all

Rome, 10 October 2013 – Every October, IFAD and the other Rome-based United Nations agencies join forces during World Food Week to remind the global public and policymakers that no one should rest until everyone has access to decent food and nutrition.

The week, which begins this year on 14 October, encompasses a cluster of UN observances with a direct bearing on the fight against hunger: the International Day for Rural Women on October 15, World Food Day on October 16, and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17. For IFAD, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), it is an opportunity to raise awareness about the many factors underlying food and nutrition security – or the absence thereof – in millions of vulnerable households around the globe.

Traditional indigenous plate in the Bolivian Andes. ©IFAD/Cristóbal Corral

World Food Week 2013 also closely follows the release of The State of Food Insecurity in the World, an update on progress towards internationally agreed targets for reducing hunger. The Rome-based agencies issued the update in advance of the recent annual meeting of the UN Committee on Food Security, held at FAO headquarters in Rome.

The findings of the report show that the world has made progress on food security since 2011, continuing a long-time positive trend. However, an estimated 842 million people (or around one in eight people in the world) still suffer from chronic hunger, meaning that they regularly do not get enough food to conduct an active life. The report shows, as well, that marked differences across regions persist, and considerable new efforts will be needed to reach the ultimate goal of zero hunger.

Sustainable food systems

Against this backdrop, World Food Day activities for 2013 will focus on the need to adopt sustainable food systems in order to ensure the future food supply. Food systems are composed of the natural resources, people, institutions and processes by which agricultural products are produced, processed and brought to consumers. Every aspect of the food system has an effect on the final availability of diverse, nutritious foods.

One initiative that illustrates the effective promotion of sustainable food systems is an IFAD grant-funded project in India, home to a third of the world's malnourished children. Based in Kolli Hills, in the state of Tamil Nadu, the project is working to revive the cultivation of several varieties of grain, known as minor millets, which used to be the staple crops in the region.

Over the past half-century, almost half of all millet cultivation in India has been replaced with more lucrative cash crops and government-subsidized rice, resulting in a major change in rural diets. Yet millet has up to 30 times more calcium than rice and much higher levels of iron, fibre and micronutrients. Minor millets are also hardy crops, needing little water and surviving in harsh conditions, so they are far more resilient to climate change than rice or wheat.

As a result, IFAD and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation have been encouraging small-scale farmers in Kolli Hills to return to millet production. "It is good for your health, it is good for your agriculture, it's good for income and its good for India's national food security," notes Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, who started the foundation.

The effort actually began about 20 years ago, when the foundation and the non-governmental organization Bioversity International – with funding from IFAD and the European Commission – began meeting with local farmers' associations about reviving the cultivation of minor millets. Over time, the farmers have increased the availability of quality millet seeds by organizing community-based seed banks, among other measures.

Women and poverty reduction

Notably, the project in Kolli Hills is led by women smallholders, who work cooperatively to collect, conserve and share seeds. With quality seeds, training in efficient farming methods and the introduction of mills to process their grain, the women have increased yields by about 30 per cent and made processing much less labour-intensive. In addition, they report positive results in terms of family health and nutrition.

"Nowadays we've started eating millet," says farmer Malliga Seerangan. "That's why we're going to the hospital less and our children are growing very well. They have more energy and good health."

Malliga Seerangan in field planted with millet and other crops, Tamil Nadu, India. ©IFAD/Joanne Levitan

As this experience suggests, rural women are indispensable drivers of rural and agricultural development. Every day, in most of the developing world, they participate in crop production and livestock care, and provide food, water and fuel for their families. At the same time, women engage in off-farm activities to diversify their families' livelihoods and carry out vital functions in caring for children, older people and the sick.

The International Day for Rural Women recognizes exactly this multidimensional role of women in enhancing rural development, improving food security and reducing rural poverty. It is also an opportunity to advocate for rural women's access to the basic rights, land and productive resources they need improve their lives and the lives of their families.

"Empowering rural women is crucial for ending hunger and poverty," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message marking the day in 2012. "By denying women rights and opportunities, we deny their children and societies a better future."

After harvest, women clean beans in Republic of the Congo. ©Baudouin Mouanda

And just as rural women's empowerment is one of the keys to food security, it is clear that reducing and, ultimately, eradicating poverty will be the only guarantee of a world free of hunger. That's one of the reasons why the UN General Assembly established the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty a decade ago. Fighting poverty remains at the core of the UN development agenda, and investments in poor rural areas – like the Kolli Hills project and the many others supported by IFAD and its partners worldwide – are one of the keys to success.

"Poverty and hunger go hand-in-hand, and poverty runs deepest in rural areas," IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze said in a recent speech. "Let us not forget that investing in smallholder agriculture is the most cost-effective way for developing countries to tackle poverty and hunger."

Watch an IFAD video on the grant-funded project supporting millet cultivation in Kolli Hills, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India.