By Didier Van Bignoot, Aga Khan Foundation
Never in the history of mankind has the assortment of food on the market been so great nor the science of farming or food processing so advanced. Yet, seldom has food security been so global and complex, ranging from a struggle for daily survival to concerns around dietary safety.
The numbers are grim. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, in a world that produces enough food for its entire population but wastes about one-third of it:
- about 800 million people still suffer from hunger
- 60% of them are female
- 45% of infant deaths remain caused by malnutrition
Meanwhile, almost 2 billion people are overweight, and nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases are skyrocketing.
Today, food production (and agriculture in particular) has become so closely tied to climate change, a phenomenon that exacerbates massive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
On the environmental front, more than 60% of agricultural soils are considered destroyed, 70% of the very scarce freshwater available is used on agriculture, and millions of hectares of rainforest burn every year to appease the demand for additional farmland and pastures.
On the biodiversity front, since 1970 the vertebrate populations worldwide have declined by 60%, insect species including essential pollinators are facing an apocalypse, and plants species currently disappear 500 times faster than they naturally would. Farm ecosystems are no exception as an equally threatening extinction takes place silently through crop and livestock genetic erosion, mainly caused by industrial standardisation.
In response, spectacular advances in technology (and particularly biotechnology) open formidable prospects with promises of higher yields, resistance to pests and diseases, and tolerance to environmental stresses. Despite some unquestionable successes, it has also dragged millions of farmers into unchartered territories, with sometimes dire consequences, demonstrating that solutions to the future of food cannot rely only on technology.
The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) believes in integrated food systems that contribute to the global adaptation/mitigation strategy. It promotes a human-centred approach to food that aims at building a strong and resilient civil society able to engineer and implement innovative local solutions, in which women and youth play a key role.
For our work in Agriculture and Food Security, this translates into the adaptation of resilient systems and appropriation of sustainable technologies around soil, water, biodiversity and biomass management, conservation agriculture, regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, livestock integration, on-farm autonomy and value addition, community irrigation, storage, processing, transport and energy infrastructures, and into broader access to knowledge and practices. It involves IC technologies and sensitisation through social networks including through the production and use of technical films. In 2018, nearly 1 million people benefited directly from AKF’s Agriculture and Food security programme.
For our Health and Nutrition work, it translates into considerable efforts in nutrient supplementation, in improved practices around maternal and infant care, and in adolescent nutrition particularly of girls. In 2018, these activities had considerable impact on the nutrition of more than 5.5 million people.
For Education, it translates into new opportunities for adolescent and adults, particularly around employable skills in the food sector and value chains. In 2018, more than 600,000 people benefited from these interventions.
For our Early Childhood Development work, it translates into multiplying each infant's potential by building a synergy between the right diet and the proper stimulation, involving all parents, including fathers. In 2018, nearly 200,000 children benefited from these efforts.
For our Economic Inclusion work, it translates into a more vibrant local entrepreneurship resulting in efficient and reliable short food circuits and strengthened markets. In 2018, these interventions brought concrete impact to almost 160,000 direct beneficiaries.
For our Civil Society work, it translates into developing innovative social and networking tools that weave conducive and resilient communities. In 2018, 4.5 million people benefited directly from AKF’s actions in civil society.
The people and communities we work with are multifaceted and deserve development that takes all these aspects into account. Take, for example, the former English schoolteacher and current pensioner in Roshorv, Bartang, Tajikistan. This fall, he was able to harvest various kinds of potatoes and wheat to feed his family and to take to market. He also planted alfalfa which he learned through our education programmes helps nourish and prepare the soil. He was able to purchase land from the 30 hectares that the local community organisation acquired, supported by our civil society programme. He is able to save money and find ways to market supported by our economic inclusion work. He watered his crops despite the water access issues exacerbated by climate change because of a canal built through our agriculture and food security work. He is at the heart of what we do.
The same goes for thousands of farmers in Madagascar who have been able to adopt more resilient, sustainable and productive agricultural systems for rice, while investing meanwhile in orange-fleshed sweet potato and food forests able to supply a vast diversity of essential nutrients and vitamins.
Because at AKF, every day is World Food Day.