Exploring the Sustainable Development Goals
Feeding the Future:Ending Global Hunger
by Allison Kooser
Originally published in 2017. Updated in 2021.
The Global Hunger Crisis | The Implications and Opportunities of Hunger, Malnutrition and Food Insecurity | How Women Can Help Solve World Hunger | Hunger, Malnutrition and Food Insecurity and Children | Hunger, Malnutrition and Food Insecurity and the Environment | Opportunity's Solution: How to End Hunger
Imagine for a moment a family.
In many ways, this family looks fairly typical: a mother, a father, three children. Some friendly neighbors, maybe a dog running around the yard.
The father, Sam, took over the family business and works tirelessly to support his children. The mother, Mary, helps manage the business and chases around the children—who are 8, 5, and 2—as they play and create chaos around the house. They have big dreams for their future and are prepared to work hard to achieve their goals.
Can you picture it?
In your mind, they probably look a lot like your family, or like a family you know.
But here’s what I didn’t tell you.
This family lives in rural Rwanda. They are farmers and rely upon a small plot of land where they cultivate maize and beans to support their children. Sam never went to school, and unless he finds a way to earn more money, his kids won’t be able to attend either. They struggle each day to cover their bills and keep their family afloat.
And they are hungry.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 690 million people around the world were undernourished. But because of the severe impact of the coronavirus on food security, the prevalence of undernourishment increased in 2020 for the first time in seven years—rising from 8.4 percent of the world’s population in 2019, to 9.9 percent in 2020. The UN estimates that between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger in 20201.
While progress has been made since the early 1990s, when 23.4 percent of the developing world was chronically undernourished, there is still a long way to go. Today, about one-eighth of those living in developing regions still struggle with hunger, and in places like sub-Saharan Africa, that rate is higher than one in four2. Hunger is caused, principally, by poverty—and hunger perpetuates the poverty cycle.
The majority of those struggling with hunger live in rural regions where they depend upon agriculture to survive.
Ironically, it is those people who are growing food who often struggle the most to eat enough of it.
Many subsistence farmers face food shortages or have trouble growing or accessing the nutrients they need to survive due to a variety of factors including, but not limited to, insufficient infrastructure, political and governmental instability, climate change and natural disasters and exclusion from the formal economy.
Unsurprisingly, when people are unable to consume adequate nutrients, their health and productivity suffer. Without access to sufficient calories or protein, the human body is depleted of energy and cannot adequately maintain its immune system, making people more vulnerable to infections and illness3. The World Bank notes that improving nutrition, “increases productivity and economic growth, and not addressing malnutrition has high costs in terms of lost GDP4.”
Because of the critical role hunger and nutrition play on both the lives and livelihoods of those living in the developing world, it is no surprise that the second Sustainable Development Goal addresses this critical topic: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”
Hunger disproportionately affects already vulnerable populations including women and children, and issues of food insecurity have a substantial impact on both human populations and the environment.
As we move toward achieving the second Sustainable Development Goal, we must keep in mind how vulnerable people and environments are harmed by hunger and malnutrition and also how they may play a unique role in the solution.
Hunger, Malnutrition, and Food Insecurity and Women
In addition to the many unique challenges women in the developing world face with regard to health, education, digital access, and economic agency, they also disproportionately suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
Their exclusion from financial services, education and even traditional aid because of gender-based discrimination and cultural norms exacerbate women farmers’ challenges in production and accessing the appropriate networks and resources they need to produce enough to feed themselves and their families. Because of this exclusion and inability to acquire seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs, women farmers yield 20-30 percent less than their male counterparts.5
At home, women are typically responsible for preparing food for their families, managing up to 90 percent of the food preparation.6
Yet despite the work they put in, women are often culturally expected to eat last, only after the men and the children have eaten.
And when food is short, this means that women sometimes are unable to eat anything at all. The World Food Programme notes that, “when a crisis hits, women are generally the first to sacrifice their food consumption, in order to protect the food consumption of their families.”7
This tendency to forgo food in favor of feeding their families impacts not only women, but also their unborn children. When women are malnourished, they are more likely to give birth to low-birth-weight babies who are at an increased risk for disease and premature death8. In fact, underweight babies are 20 percent more likely to die before the age of five.9 And this assumes that babies are born in the first place. Because of malnutrition, women are at particular risk of developing iron deficiencies and anemia. In some developing countries, up to 75 percent of women are anemic10, and worldwide, some 20% of maternal deaths are caused by anemia or a shortage of iron.11
But women not only suffer from hunger and malnutrition disproportionately; they also have a unique role to play in alleviating global hunger and increasing food security. There is a great amount of untapped potential waiting to be unlocked in female farmers. By investing in women in particular, we can make significant strides in our progress toward achieving the second Sustainable Development Goal.
The potential of elevating women’s roles in their communities is so great that scholars assert, “Gender equality can make a substantial contribution to a country’s economic growth, and it is the single most important determinant of food security. A cross-country study of developing countries…found that 43 percent of the reduction of hunger that occurred was attributable to progress in women’s education. This was almost as much as the combined effect of increased food availability (26 percent) and improvements to the health environment (19 percent).”12 By giving women farmers in particular the resources they need to establish and grow their farms, we could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million.13
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN noted that, “If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4 percent, which could in turn reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17 percent.”14
Needless to say, connecting women farmers to the broader agricultural economy is an enormous opportunity in the movement to end hunger and malnutrition.
The most severe impact of hunger and malnutrition is on children. While parents face reduced productivity and illness, hungry children are at risk of stunting, developmental and educational shortfalls and death.
When a child is malnourished, she is unable to grow, learn or develop to her full potential; her hunger in childhood will rob her of a fulfilling future.
Stunting appears to be a simple issue of bodily growth at first glance. But without adequate nutrition in childhood, stunting can cause an underdeveloped brain, which diminishes mental ability and learning capacity, leading to reduced earnings and increased risks of chronic diseases in adulthood. Stunting leads to a lifetime of challenges, which perpetuates the cycle of extreme poverty for those living in the developing world. In India, about 35% of children under five are stunted15, and globally, stunting affects 22% of those under five—about 150 million children16. If a malnourished child is able to develop and go to school, he will continue to face challenges in his education. Prior to the pandemic, 66 million primary school children attended classes hungry, with 23 million in Africa alone17. The widespread school closures throughout 2020 and 2021 have made this crisis even more severe, with World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley saying, ““For millions of children around the world, the meal they get at school is the only meal they get in a day. Without it, they go hungry, they risk falling sick, dropping out of school and losing their best chance of escaping poverty. We must act now to prevent the health pandemic from becoming a hunger catastrophe.”18
We all know how poorly we pay attention when we are hungry. Our attention goes to our rumbling stomachs and cloudy brains, and we don’t retain information well at all. For children living in extreme poverty, education is the key to unlocking a future full of potential, but school becomes much less effective when kids are too hungry to learn.
And worst of all, malnourished children often don’t survive their first five years of life. Poor nutrition causes 45 percent of deaths in children under five, leading to 3.1 million childhood deaths each year.19 And it’s not just severe malnutrition that can lead to death—a World Health Organization study highlighted the fact that, “even children with mild to moderate malnutrition had an increased risk of dying.”20
In order to create lasting, positive change for the next generation, we must invest not only in education, health and economic empowerment, but also tackle hunger and malnutrition, particularly for children, so that they are alive and healthy as they learn, grow, and become productive members of society.
In addition to the dramatic implications of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity on human life, the global hunger crisis also affects the environment. And while hunger, malnutrition and the strategies to address them do impact the environment—10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by agriculture, for example21—what are perhaps more significant are the ways the environment and climate are significantly influencing hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity.22
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN notes that, “unless action is taken now to make agriculture more sustainable, productive and resilient, climate change impacts will seriously compromise food production in countries and regions that are already highly food-insecure.”23 For smallholder farmers in the developing world, climate change presents a very real and very significant threat.
As the global population continues to grow, global food production must grow as well. Global food demand in 2050 is expected to be between 50 and 98 percent higher than demand in 201624, and population growth will be concentrated in regions that currently struggle with undernourishment.25 This means that we need to find a way to increase food production while keeping in mind the many competing demands on land, water and energy.
The FAO continues, “A broad-based transformation of food and agriculture systems is needed to ensure global food security…without adaptation to climate change, it will not be possible to achieve food security for all and eradicate hunger, malnutrition and poverty.”26 And because these changes disproportionately affect those living in poverty, we must develop and train smallholder farmers on farming strategies that both increase production and maintain the land on which they farm. Climate change should motivate a surge of creative thought and education in the agricultural sector in order to respond to what will become increasingly severe challenges.
Thankfully, global agricultural leaders have already begun to identify opportunities for improvement.
Since the early 1900s, we have lost nearly 75 percent of crop diversity globally.
The UN suggests that, “better use of agricultural biodiversity can contribute to more nutritious diets, enhanced livelihoods for farming communities and more resilient and sustainable farming systems.”27 By encouraging new crop diversification, we can increase the nutrients available to subsistence farmers and improve farms themselves. With a greater diversity of crops, farmers mitigate their risk from environmental factors and weather changes.
In addition, using sustainable land and water practices and introducing particular new crop varieties can address some of the risks climate change presents. For example, using nitrogen-efficient and heat-tolerant crop varieties could reduce the number of people at risk of undernourishment by more than 120 million people.
In order to encourage adoption of diversification and sustainable practices, experts must develop methods that both educate and incentivize farmers to take advantage of these strategies. For smallholder farmers in the developing world that are at particular risk for hunger and malnutrition, climate change and environmental factors present the greatest risk. But these same farmers are often the hardest to reach and encourage behavioral changes.
Opportunity’s solution to ending hunger is simple: equip smallholder farmers to be better able to feed themselves and their families.
Understandably, this is a simple goal that requires complex practices to achieve. But through customized and careful attention to technology, training and the complete agricultural value chain, Opportunity is addressing the many varied needs of smallholder farmers and helping them tackle hunger in their families and communities by moving from subsistence to commercial agriculture.
In order to increase production and crop sales and improve money management, farmers must have the ability to access the broader economy and financial institutions. For rural farmers, traveling to and from bank branches can be expensive, time-consuming and a burden on their business. But thanks to mobile technology, farmers now have their bank accounts at their fingertips.
Opportunity is investing in mobile tools that allow farmers and rural entrepreneurs to safely access and manage their accounts via phone, reducing costs for both clients and branches.
In addition, Opportunity has equipped its rural relationship officers with mobile technology, enabling them to utilize tailored applications and GPS technology to provide customized insights to clients. With these tools, Opportunity can help clients map their land, determine the optimal input strategy and develop action plans that introduce crop diversification and effective planting techniques.
As we look to the future, technology will continue to play a vital role in fighting hunger and addressing the needs of smallholder farmers. Opportunity is working toward an integrated data platform that will bring together the disparate data currently collected by members throughout the agricultural value chain into a single platform. This unified data will help farmers and agronomists identify service gaps, improve the coordination of services and inform the development of innovative new tools and solutions.
In addition to (and facilitated by) technology, Opportunity invests heavily in training farmers to improve their practices and increase their production. When many farmers begin working with Opportunity, they are opening a bank account for the very first time. Opportunity provides them with financial and business training so that they can be prepared to manage, save, and spend money well.
Opportunity also partners with specialists to teach farmers agricultural best practices, including crop diversification and cutting-edge planting techniques. And as we know, when farmers learn improved techniques for planting, irrigation and harvesting, they are better-equipped to increase their yields, feed their families, and tackle food scarcity in their communities.
The Value Chain
What’s a Value Chain?
Farmers require a network of services to operate their farms effectively. Opportunity works to connect rural farmers to the services they need to make they can buy seed and fertilizer during planting season, access equipment during harvest and sell their crops at a fair value.
Opportunity connects farmers with suppliers of high-quality seed and fertilizers, the first step in increasing crop yields. And through customized agricultural loans, Opportunity ensures that farmers can afford these inputs, even with seasonal incomes.
Extension Service Providers
Throughout the planting and growing seasons, Opportunity connects clients to Extension Service Providers (ESPs)—experts in agriculture and other farming strategies. These ESPs provide much of the training that teaches farmers how to better diversify, optimize and grow their crops, leading to larger, healthier harvests. And when farmers have the technical support and training they need to improve their yields, they can better feed their families and communities.
Once a farmer has completed their harvest, Opportunity connects clients to off-takers who purchase crops at fair market value. So often, poor, rural farmers lack the bargaining power they need to receive a fair price for their crops, so they remain trapped in a cycle of poverty season after season. Through farming co-ops, Opportunity facilitates group sales, which amplifies the voice of each individual farmer in the market. And through processing and storage centers, Opportunity helps farmers have the space and resources they need to wait for the right buyer instead of selling to the first offer that comes along.
So What Does It All Mean?
These strategies targeting smallholder farmers sound promising in theory, but they can be truly revolutionary for a family in need.
Remember Sam with his wife and three children in Rwanda?
Struggling with his farm, nervous about his children’s future and suffering from the long-term consequences of his own childhood hunger, Samuel Mugenzi was introduced to Opportunity International.
He joined a farming cooperative, received a loan to purchase fertilizer from a local supplier and followed the improved farming practices his relationship officer,
Sergio, suggested. At harvest, he was able to choose from three interested buyers, helping him increase his income and cover his family’s expenses more easily.
Now, he is able to feed his children and create a future for his family. He has a newfound confidence and understands that the more he prospers, the more his family does too.
He is fighting hunger, starting with his own family.
And this time, it’s a fight that he is winning.
Allison is a professional storyteller, freelance writer, and avid traveler. She spent the last year backpacking around the world meeting and interviewing incredible people with remarkable stories, eating amazing food, and climbing very scary mountains. Now, she lives in Chicago where she runs a small business helping nonprofit organizations identify, create, and share their stories, equipping them to better do the work they were born to do. When she's not working, you can usually find her reading a book, planning her next trip, or baking the best cookies on the planet.
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