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The Leading Voices in Food

E6: Shenggen Fan on Hunger, Climate Change and the Hope of Innovation

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
January 3, 2019

What happens when a child is malnourished? Can such a child ever “catch up” later in life? Why does urbanization and obesity seem to go hand in hand—and what does this mean for food production? We’ll explore big picture food system questions today on the Leading Voices in Food with our guest Dr. Shenggen Fan.

Dr. Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute, also known as IFPRI. Dr. Fan joined IFPRI in 1995 and has conducted extensive research on pro-poor development strategies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He is dedicated to inspiring ambition, to mobilizing action and to accelerating progress toward cutting global food loss and waste. He serves as a member of the lead group for the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and serves as an advisor to many national governments including China and Vietnam on agriculture, food insecurity and nutrition. In his highly distinguished career, Dr. Fan has received many awards. In 2014, he received the Hunger Hero award from the World Food Program in recognition of his leadership in fighting hunger worldwide. And in 2017 received the Fudan Management Excellence Award. This award is referred to in China as the Nobel Prize for management.

Interview Summary

There are few people in the world who can see the food picture and the global food picture as you do. What do you believe are some of the key food issues facing the world?

Well, there are a couple of challenges we are facing. Firstly we’re facing the multi burden of malnutrition. So, on the one hand, we have 800 million people who are still hungry, meaning that they do not have enough to eat. In fact, for the last two or three years, that number has been rising because of conflict, climate change and so on. So that’s the number one burden.

Number two burden is hidden hunger. We actually don’t see them, the lack of micronutrients, Iron, Zinc, vitamins, vitamin A and beyond. And we have more than 2 billion people who suffer from that.

The third burden is overnutrition, you know– overweight, obesity–and again, we have more than 2 billion people in the world who suffer from overweight. Obesity, as you know, overweight, obesity leads to noncommunicable diseases: heart diseases, strokes, diabetes, and beyond. So the burdens of malnutrition are the number one challenge that we’re facing.

And number two challenge is, yes, climate change. Climate affects our life, but climate change affects our food system much more than anything else though. Our crop yield will be affected. Even nutrition. The latest evidence shows that if global warming continues, the micronutrients or nutrition of certain crops will be affected negatively, which means that it will not only affect the amount of food we’re going to eat but also affect the quality–the nutrition of the food that we’re going to eat. So climate change is a big issue.

The third challenge is urbanization. We know that when people move to cities, they demand more and better food. Just two or three years ago, we crossed a line of a 50/50, you know, 50 percent urban population, 50 percent rural population. I think today probably more than 52 to 55 percent and by 2052 two-thirds of our population will be in urban areas demanding more and better food, demanding more water and land and so on, and more construction for residential areas. That also affects the supply of our food. So I think we’re facing all these challenges in the long-term. In the short run, the conflict, the droughts in many parts of Africa in South Asia have led to many people going hungry. And that sort of a shorter run impact is not going to go away soon. So the challenges are grave, and we must work together to make sure that people have enough to eat. That people have nutritious, healthy food to eat.

You mentioned 800 million people are malnourished around the world and then more with hidden hunger beyond that. What are some of the consequences of this? I mean, we hear these large numbers, but what is the real effect on people in their lives of being malnourished.

Well clearly, when people are malnourished, their human capital will be affected. Their physical capability and their cognitive skills will be affected. So once a child is malnourished or stunted, it’s like a life sentence. The whole life of that child will be affected. So from our study, it shows that every year, you know, we lose trillions of dollars because of different burdens of malnutrition. Oh, it’s a human development issue. It’s an economic issue, and it’s also a health issue, you know. Just to give you one example about the malnutrition problem in the US. So, for the last two years or three years, the United States life expectancy has declined. Obviously, there are many reasons, for example, the overuse of certain drugs and so on. But one important factor is the diet. It’s a bad diet, leads to overweight and obesity. And again, that then leads to many noncommunicable diseases. That’s in the US. So in Africa, in South Asia, you know, many countries lose 10 percent of the GDP equivalent every year because of malnutrition. So it is a serious problem for everybody in the world.

Let’s talk for a moment more about the climate change issue that you brought up. You said that climate change could affect the nutrients in foods, but I know it can also have an impact on where foods will grow. What does that picture look like as time goes forward?

Absolutely. So we know that if the temperature of our planet increases by two degrees by 2050, by the end of the century, the amount of food produced will be affected in many parts of the world–particularly poor areas of our planet, Africa and South Asia. Many crops will lose the yield by 30 percent, in some extreme cases, it could be 50 percent. Could you imagine they would lose 30 percent, 50 percent of the yield in the next 50 to 100 years in many, many extreme areas? But equally important is the micronutrients. We have evidence that shows that vitamins and even proteins of our foods will be affected, which means many people will go either invisible hunger or hidden hunger. And if we don’t address that, even more people will be affected. We will lose our human capital, our health, and our economic development.

So if the warmer places in the world–say in Subsaharan Africa–are already having trouble feeding themselves, this will just exacerbate the problem. Now could one make the argument that areas that are far too cold to grow food will be able to with global warming, and the same amount of food might get produced overall it will just be moved to a different location?

Well, this is true to some extent. But there are dry, hot areas in Africa and a certain hot, humid area in Asia, South Asia, that would be affected much more, much more unproportionately. And that’s where the poor, hungry people and they do not have the capacity or have means to adapt to that. And while the Northern part of the planet, yes they may again begin to produce some of the crops that have never been produced, but that will not be able to offset the large loss from the southern part of the planet. And also, you know, the warmer climate in the northern part of the planet may also bring diseases, you know. Whether there’s human diseases or animal disease or crop diseases that could affect our production negatively.

To what extent do you think technology can save us from this? For example, can a genetically modified food to better resist drought, hot conditions and things like that help stave off this problem?

Technology is critical here. Technology will help farmers to adapt to climate change. For example, the climate is getting warmer or getting colder, so the newer crops can adapt to the new climate so they can still produce more, even better food. We call that adaptation.

We have seen lots of crops already in many parts of Africa, many parts of South Asia, so they begin to introduce new crop varieties–which is a technology–that can help to survive in a very hot environment or, very wet environment, or in various submerged environments. So we have seen that already, but more needs to be done. But, here I also wanted to mention another dimension, Kelly, and that is mitigation. So many technologies, many crop varieties can act and help mitigate the climate change by reducing carbon emission to our air. As you know, our agriculture and food system account for somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the total carbon emission. And we have made tremendous progress in the energy sector, in the transportation sector, but our food and agricultural sector lags behind. So newer technology must also help mitigate the climate change to reduce the carbon emission to the air or help to sequestrate the carbon into the soil.

Let’s talk about rural areas a bit. What role can rural areas play in the context of food and what are some of the key actions that might be taken?

Well, I think it’s very critical, very critical. Part of the reason why people want to move to the urban area is because there’s a lack of opportunity in rural areas. The environment has been degraded, such as water, land, the whole ecosystem. And, to a large extent, this is also related to agricultural food production. In Asia, many farmers in food production overuse fertilizers, others pesticides, water, and as a result, the water has been contaminated. The land has been degraded. And in some areas, even air has been polluted because of the burning of certain straws. So I think the rural areas have been to some extent sort of a degraded because of the different farming practices, but that does not mean there is no chance. There is a chance. How are we going to revitalize the rural areas? By fixing the environmental problem, by fixing the living conditions.

For example, you know, if a young farmer or young people wanted to stay in rural areas–that person needs a good job. I do think agriculture, food, a range of service sector can provide a good job or even others go to distance working can provide a job in rural areas, rural towns. And then they also need entertainment, movie theaters, and the banking services, restaurant services. So if we can provide all the services, opportunities, and fix the environment, I think people will stay in rural areas without moving to the cities. You know, cities are already very crowded, housing is very expensive, traffic is terrible. So part of our strategy, from my institute, is to look at different ways, different strategies, different investment priorities to revitalize rural areas. So the young people can stay or even come back to rural areas to enjoy their work, to enjoy their lives. Such a great opportunity. As you know right, there are trade frictions around different countries. I think help with revitalizing the rural areas can also help avoid that problem. If you wanted to revitalize rural areas, you create a big demand, big demand for infrastructure, big demand for investment, big demand for services, big demand for food and so they will be more resilient to anti-trade shocks.

What would you say some of the leading priorities are to ensure healthy and sustainable food systems around the world?

I think number one is innovation, you already mentioned about innovation, but here I think it’s not just the innovations in technology. I have already to said to that the newer technologies have multiple wins. They win in yield, they win in nutrition, and they win in the environment–you know, cutting down water, land use, energy use, cutting down the carbon emission. So newer technologies that we tried to introduce today must have all these wins. So that’s number one.

Second is innovation policy, which is very much ignored by many, but which is equally important. So how can we reform the current investment or support policy to agriculture? Right now, in this moment we are using $500 billion to subsidize farmers to use more water, more land, more energy or pesticides to produce staple foods like rice, wheat, and maize, at the cost of more nutritious, healthy or sustainable foods, vegetables, fruits, dairy products and beyond. So reforming subsidy policy.

It’s a gradually eliminating of this subsidy and then using that money to promote more nutritious and healthy food production I think it has great potential. And even further, I also wanted to propose taxing unsustainable foods, and use that money to support healthy, nutritious and sustainable food production. I think innovation policy is equally important. And finally, governance. How can we make sure that our politicians are accountable to nutrition, health, environment–our environmental outcome is very critical. So that comes back to your institute and my institute so we can help generate the data, generate a matrix, generate evidence to make sure that different stakeholders, including politicians, the private sector, our citizens are accountable to what do we want to achieve.

At various times in our conversation, you mentioned food insecurity, you mentioned overnutrition, obesity, and you mentioned agriculture. How important is it to connect these areas, to look at the intersection of these areas and to bring together people who work in what are now pretty segmented areas.

I think it’s a system. So today we’re talking about agri-food system. So agriculture is a system. Food is a system. So that system not only needs to produce food nutritious, healthy food for everybody, but also help to address environmental problems, climate change problems. So the agri-food system has to have two overarching goals. On the one hand, the healthy nutrition of everybody in the world, on the other hand is a good environment to help to mitigate climate change for everybody. Every stakeholder in this system, you know, farmers, processors, traders, consumers, even the government officials, the private sector must be part of that system to work together to achieve these two overarching twin goals.

You’ve talked about some pretty daunting problems during our discussion. Are there are other reasons to be optimistic?

Oh, I am, we have seen such successes in many different countries in Africa, South Asia, and here in the US. So we have seen successes here and there if we can really learn from the successes, and to generate knowledge, generate best-fit practices that people can use to accelerate the progress, I truly believe we can transform and reshape our agriculture system to achieve these two goals at the same time.


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