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The African food system and its interactions with health and nutrition

UNU-Cornell Africa Series

13 November 2007

SARPN acknowledges the UNU-Cornell Africa series website as the source of this series of presentations:
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Africa remains a central focus of the Millennium Development Goals, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000. The reasons for Africa’s lack of success in achieving the MDGs and the issues that deny the region access to food are complex. Knowledge is often limited in critical areas of development. It is within this context that the United Nations University (UNU) and Cornell University have collaborated to advance, through a series of conferences, scientific and policy knowledge in three critical areas: food and nutrition systems, from governance and development crises to security crises, and public health including HIV/AIDS.

The first symposium of the UNU-Cornell Africa Series, focusing on “The Africa Food System and its Interactions With Health and Nutrition”, was held on 13 November 2006 at UN Headquarters in New York. “The global food system begins and ends with health”, said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, H. E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition, and Public Policy at Cornell University and 2001 World Food Prize Laureate. He explained the two-way causal relationship between the global food system and health and nutrition, stating that energy and nutrient deficiencies could influence the food system through labour productivity which, in turn, contributed to deficiencies in the food system, low income and poor health and nutrition. Speaking of the progress towards achieving MDG 1, the alleviation of hunger, Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen noted that in sub-Saharan Africa the number of underweight pre-school children, one of the indicators for measuring the goal, was expected to continue to rise at almost the same rate as the population. “Will Africa achieve that goal? Not with business as usual”, he asserted.

The burden of diseases and of malnutrition, each reinforcing the other, acted together in continually weakening the African population, said Onesmo ole-MoiYoi, Provost of the Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. Speaking of their interaction with the food system in sub-Saharan Africa, he noted that diseases, such as malaria, killed one child every 30 seconds, affecting one out of six people in the region. Global warming had led to more highland areas becoming mosquito-infested. Muddy pits left over from making bricks for houses around tea plantations had been found to be perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes, he said, adding that “many of these problems are man-made and therefore can be corrected”. Solutions included mosquito larvae control, insecticide-impregnated bed nets, community involvement, affordable anti-malaria medications and new genetic tools to identify disease carriers. Mr. ole-MoiYoi further noted the importance of instituting disease control measures in conjunction with appropriate nutritional interventions.

Former Vice-President Speciosa Wandira of Uganda spoke about the role of women in the food system of sub-Saharan Africa. As food crops in African countries were mainly the domain of women, developing agencies emphasized women’s empowerment as key in achieving nutrition and health goals in Africa, she said. “I want to raise women above scratching at the earth, to play more responsible roles beyond putting food on the table”, Ms. Wandira asserted, adding that men would need to take a more active role changing the traditional division of labour.

In Africa, a disproportionate share of the extreme poor, who lived on less than $1 a day, were actually “ultra-poor”, surviving on less than $0.50 per day per person, of which 75 per cent lived in sub-Saharan Africa, explained Christopher Barrett, Professor of Applied Economics and Management and co-Director of the African Food Security and Natural Resources Management programme at Cornell University. This extreme poverty was closely associated with widespread malnutrition and ill health, which made integrated strategies essential, he added. Increasing Africa’s agricultural productivity needed to be the focus of such a strategy and would have a dual effect. Farming households would have more to eat and need to purchase less, he said, resulting in crucial savings in a region where food costs accounted for 65 to 80 per cent of the expenditures of those who lived on less than 50 cents per day.

Stuart Gillespie, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, analysed the multifaceted impact of the AIDS hyper-epidemics across Southern Africa. He underlined that it was not possible to attribute poverty as the main driver of the HIV virus, stating that many aspects, including mobility and gender inequality, were catalysts to the spread of the virus. Malnutrition played an important role in increasing the risk of contracting HIV, he said, as it weakend the immune system and increased the risk of genital ulcers and mother-to-child transmission. In the face of all these factors, a good way to respond would be to increase prevention, care and treatment mitigation, he affirmed. However, protecting vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, ensuring dietary needs, providing micronutrient supplementation and integrating information and communication into health care were other key elements for a positive approach, he said.

In his address to the symposium, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted the need for a strengthened global partnership in achieving the MDGs and the importance of academic and research institutions for the dissemination of knowledge in policy circles. The joint conference of UNU and Cornell University is also meant to inform the high-level meeting on “Africa’s Development Needs”, which will be held at the UN General Assembly in 2008.

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