Gerald F. Combs, Jr., Ph.D
October 16 is World Food Day, the 23rd annual worldwide observance to increase awareness, understanding and informed, year-round action to alleviate hunger. In the United States, World Food Day is sponsored by 450 national private voluntary organizations. While World Food Day should have meaning to all Americans, I believe it has special relevance to those of us living in the nation’s bread basket.
We, who have the luxury of the world’s safest and most accessible food supply much of which is produced by our friends and neighbors, are not unaware of the struggle against hunger in poorer two-thirds of the world. We may not be as aware of food insecurity, the recurring concern about having enough food, occurring in our own country. One in nine U.S. households is food insecure, a situation associated with increased child illness and reduced school performance.
Food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition are fundamental outcomes of poverty which deepen other aspects of poverty by undercutting the capacity to work, reducing the resistance to disease, and limiting the mental development and educational achievements of children. In a world adding nearly 80 million people each year, the fight against hunger and food insecurity is about reducing poverty and increasing the production of and access to food.
The good news is that, in recent decades, global food production has outpaced global population growth. While this gap is narrowing slightly, it is expected to continue at least through mid-century. Developing countries, collectively, now have a net surplus of agricultural trade. For the first time, 90% of the world’s people have access to at least 2200 calories/day – a 50% improvement since the 1960’s. These gains have come as a result of the so-called Green Revolution, an international effort to develop agricultural technologies to increase the yields of major staple crops, particularly rice, wheat and corn. The Green Revolution more than doubled grain yields and reduced grain prices by 60% to the advantage of poor consumers in developing countries.
Despite these gains, nearly 815 million people, including 1 in every 6 people living in developing countries, are malnourished. More than 2 billion people are at risk for goiter due to insufficient intakes of iodine; 2.5 million children are deficient in vitamin A – causing a half-million to go blind and over a million to die of measles each year; 40% of the world’s women are anemic; one-sixth of the world’s babies are born underweight; one-third of children under the age of five are stunted; and the crippling bone diseases rickets in children and osteoporosis in women persist in nearly two dozen countries. These diseases result from deficiencies of vitamins and minerals, so-called “micro-nutrients” because, despite their vital functions, they are required in only trace amounts. Micronutrient malnutrition has, therefore, become the focus of a range of efforts - from the promotion of food fortification technologies to the development of micronutrient-rich cultivars of major staple crops. These efforts have been called the “Greener Revolution”.
Are the food needs of poor women and children in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South America really local issues in North Dakota? Is uncertain access to enough food by fellow Americans really of local concern? Those answers have to do with our commitment to the principle that freedom from hunger is a basic human right – one that is essential for the enjoyment of other rights such as health, education and work plus everything that flows from these. It also has to do with our bread basket status.
North Dakota leads the U.S. in the production of at least 11 crops (durum wheat, spring wheat, barley, oats, buckwheat, sunflowers, flax, canola, navy beans, pinto beans, dry peas) and is among the top 3 states in producing wheat, honey, lentils and sugar beets. Each year North Dakotans produce enough wheat to make 17 billion loaves of bread, enough durum to make 90 million spaghetti dinners, enough potatoes to make 232 million servings of french fries, enough beef to make 121 million hamburgers, enough pork to make 49 million chops, and enough milk to fill 1.3 billion glasses. With nearly 40 million harvested acres, North Dakota is and will continue to be a significant contributor to the global supply of food. Our state’s contributions to alleviating global hunger both here and abroad, as well as those of our nation in general, will depend on our ability to develop sustainable agricultural and food technologies, as well as the appropriate policy structures, to increase crop yields, to improve food nutrient contents and to improve food access.