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Changing the food security menu

Apr 24, 2015

Food security that has been achieved for almost 90 per cent of people of earth cannot be sustained unless it is ensured that the foods they consume are sufficient, nutritious and safe, writes Dr P G Dhar Chakrabarti.

New Delhi: Widespread prevalence of hunger and starvation in many parts of the world made the discourse on food security focused to provisioning of minimum calorie intake for survival, without adequate consideration of the issues of either nutritional value or safety of food. The UN Millennium Development Goal targeted ‘to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger’.

According to the MDG report card of 2014 the proportion of underfed people has decreased from 24 per cent in 1990-92 to 14 per cent in 2011-13, and therefore, the target should almost be achieved before the world leaders gather this September in New York to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals.

Fourteen per cent of the 7.2 billion global population is still a formidable number, mostly concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, where basic food security remains an unfinished agenda. The fact that the agenda is high on priority is reflected in the enactments of laws making food an entitlement such as India’s National Food Security Act of 2013, and in the continuing efforts of international humanitarian agencies, spearheaded by the World Food Programme.

These endeavors may ensure that the saga of starvation of human beings on planet earth may well be overcome during the course of next decade or less. It may resurface unless food production keeps pace with growth of population, which would be another challenge, considering the slowing down of agricultural growth in many countries and the spectre of climate change haunting agriculture in tropical areas.

Food security that has been achieved for almost 90 per cent of people of earth cannot be sustained unless it is ensured that the foods they consume are sufficient, nutritious and safe. Increasing intensification and industrialization of agricultural and animal production, globalization of food processing and supply chains, and changing food habits of people, particularly in growing urban areas, are creating new challenges in production, supply and consumption of food that may have serious impacts on food safety.

Bottlenecks to food safety

First, on the production side increasing use of genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, animal and poultry feeds are causing concerns on which opinions are sharply divided, but there are no differences of opinion on unsafe food processing, storage, packaging, transportation etc. which raise serious issues of food safety that remain unaddressed in many parts of the world.

According to World Health Organisation unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, prions or chemical substances like toxins, organic pollutants and heavy metals may cause more than 200 different types of diseases -- ranging from diarrhea to cancers. Preliminary estimates of currently ongoing global burden of food-borne disease indicate there are well over five billion episodes of diarrhea morbidity alone every year, of which over two million people do not survive, which include many children.

On the supply side, food is one of fastest growing global supply chains that link producers from the remotest corners to markets around the world. While this offers enormous opportunities for the growth of food processing industries and higher returns for the primary growers, inadequate infrastructure for storage, handling, packaging, transportation and absence of well-developed regulatory regimes come with inherent dangers of creating layers of risks and of transmitting the risks far beyond the farmland or factory gates. There are many examples when local incidents quickly evolved into international emergencies due to the speed and range of product distribution. Some of these recent examples include the contamination of infant formula with melamine in China that affected 300,000 infants in 2008, and the 2011 Escherichia coli outbreak in Germany linked to contaminated fenugreek sprouts in Europe and North America, which caused US $ 1.3 billion in losses for farmers and industries and US $236 million in emergency aid payments to 22 European Union member States.

Safe food production and supply may not necessarily ensure food safety unless the foods that are finally consumed in homes, community feasts, eateries or on the streets are safe. It is estimated that nearly 30 per cent of food-borne diseases originate on the consumption side that can be easily prevented with better education, awareness and enforcement, but these apparently simple tasks become difficult in countries afflicted with poverty, illiteracy and poor governance.

Laws and disorder

Food safety in India has not engaged the kind of attention it should have. The integration of multiplicity of laws and regulations like Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954, Fruit Products Order 1955, Meat Food Products Order 1973, Vegetable Oil Products (Control) Order 1947, Milk and Milk Products Order 1992 etc. into Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, and establishment of a single reference point in the Food Safety and Standards Authorities at national and state levels held the promises of food safety, but the promises are far from being translated into actions on the ground where food adulteration and widespread contamination are creating continuing risks of food-borne diseases that pose one of gravest risks to public health.

Surely, food safety is a critical issue of public health, but the issues are much larger than health – it involves multiple sectors like agriculture, animal husbandry, food processing and marketing, consumer affairs, etc. This calls for an integrated approach involving multiple stakeholders that are concerned with all these sectors, which is woefully lacking.

Dr P G Dhar Chakrabarti is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Resource & Env. Governance, Green Growth and Resource Efficiency, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi.

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