Around the world, countries celebrated World Food Day this past Tuesday, October 16th. It was a day to look at food security around the world and, this year, to see how agricultural cooperatives can help feed our planet’s growing population. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promoted cooperatives, particularly women’s cooperatives, as a way to help certain areas of the world increase their food security. In a time where the obesity epidemic is headline news in the U.S. and other developed nations, many people in other countries around the world do not have regular access to safe and nutritious food. Teaching farming techniques that can reduce input costs, save water, and increase yields will not only give the farmers more food in their mouths, but money in their pockets.
Education is certainly important for farmers in terms of how to improve their harvests, but also for the whole family with regards to what foods make up a healthy diet. Feeling full is a start, but it’s not the whole story. Malnourishment is different from undernourishment. The head of the nutrition department in the Ministry of Health (MINSAL) of El Salvador, Beatriz Sanchez, believes that the majority of her country’s population are ill-informed regarding how to properly feed themselves with a nutritious diet. She further believes that the Ministry of Agriculture and Ranching (MAG) should distribute nutrition information along with the seeds packets. They encourage (through the heavy subsidizing of) planting corn and beans. But just eating beans and tortillas will not cover all of your nutritional needs. In fact, according to data collected by the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama, El Salvador suffers from widespread severe deficiencies of many minerals, particularly calcium and iron, and several vitamins, notably Vitamin A.
The ministry’s response is to fortify the basic goods, such as sugar, salt, corn flour and wheat flour. Vitamin A is added to sugar, for example. To me, this is akin to pumping blood into a person dying from a cut in the femoral artery. Sure, the blood transfusions will help, but unless you take care of the root of the problem, it will never go away. Encouraging people to consume sugar for its Vitamin A is certainly not an ideal solution in a country where diabetes is on the rise and few can afford to manage their disease. The Salvadoran Diabetes Association estimates that 800 thousand Salvadorans suffer from diabetes – nearly 13% of the population (compared to the U.S.’s 8.3%).
El Salvador also believes women can be the key to making a positive change in the country’s food security status. The number of rural women make up 51% of the total country’s population, and it is the rural areas where food security and malnourishment are widespread. Many efforts are underway to bring electricity and potable water to rural homes, but many fear that the loss of local food production is being forgotten about, or at least not taken seriously enough. Relying on imports forces the local population to adapt to the fluctuating world prices, which could mean many families will focus on buying the most Calories they can for their dollar, which then might mean that vegetables and other products that would add the needed variety (nutritionally-speaking) to their diet would be foregone.
In El Salvador, 60% of the grain market is controlled by global multinationals (subsidiaries of Cargill, Monsanto and Nestle). This horizontal integration hurts small farmers, who cannot compete with the artificially low-priced imported products. Local efforts are needed to increase production within the country both of staple crops and vegetables, to improve and protect the marketing and sales of these products, to educate farmers in sustainable production techniques and how to handle changes in climate patterns, and lastly, to educate the population about what comprises a nutritionally sound diet. The UN’s World Food Program‘s (WFP) Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative seeks to empower subsistence farmers by providing low-interest loans and marketing avenues for their harvests. By using their money to encourage small farmers to invest in their farms, they hope to increase long-term food security in the region. Overall, however, the outlook is not a bright one, unless these types of programs dominate and the government (not just non-profits) moves its support towards small-scale local production.