FAO director: ‘A man who wakes up hungry is an angry man’

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When people are food insecure, they either lash out or resort to “negative” coping strategies, such as migration or selling assets they may actually need for their longer term resilience. So one of the ways to reduce conflict and civil instability is to ensure people have access to good food, says Richard China.

Richard China is the director of the Brussels office of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This is a shortened version of a telephone interview conducted by EurActiv’s Marc Hall.

You believe that food and security are becoming greater priorities for the EU…

Food and nutrition security are a top priority for the EU and I think that this reflects not only the gravity of the food insecurity and nutrition issues in the world, but the number of people affected and the consequences.

It also represents a growing realisation that there is a global interest in tackling this issue. When, in 2007 and 2008, when food prices rose very rapidly on global markets in caused riots in over 30 countries. Organisations like the World Bank recognised that they had under-invested in agriculture and I think their reflections were felt by many developing countries and by many international aid agencies, that it was now the time to increase investment in agriculture as one of the quickest routes to improve food security and nutrition.

This why I think it is reflected in the EU framework from 2014, not only because of the moral imperative but because of the links to civil instability as a contribution to migration issues and many other problems that we see around the world. I think it’s a question of global solidarity and global self-interest to ensure that this interest is addressed and can be done.

Is the Zero Hunger Challenge, the UN’s call to end world hunger by 2050 while also limiting the effects of food production on the environment and avoiding waste, feasible?

It’s good that you mentioned food waste, as that is one of dimensions of the Zero Hunger Challenge, and it recognises this contrast between 840+ million people who are chronically hungry - who haven’t been well fed at least for the period of a year - and there are these appalling consequences of this under-nutrition, in terms of the impact that it has on their physical health, their mental health and how that also is a drag on society, because those people may have children who are not adequately nourished in the first 1000 days and will never be able to reach their full potential.

That has a big economic impact. They say in Africa that a man who wakes up hungry is an angry man and we see that manifested in those riots that we talked about when those prices rises occur. People who are in urban areas who are spending a very high proportion of their income on food, and they start to get squeezed, they get angry.

But then we’ve got this contrast, where about one third of total food that is produced in the world is wasted or lost. If we could reduce those food losses and food waste to zero, we could feed two billion people. So clearly that’s one of the pathways to ensuring that we have enough food. But we think that with existing good practices, that are not with any negative impacts on the environment, that are what we call sustainable for producers, consumers and systems, that it is indeed possible to feed this growing population by 2015.

That expression you used, ‘a hungry man is an angry man’, is interesting. More and more academics and policy makers are drawing links between food security and conflict. The Sahel is a strong example…

Indeed, there is a strong correlation between those countries that suffer from protracted crises, food security is an issue. There’s no doubt that when people are destitute, food insecure, they will either lash out or they will often resort to negative coping strategies, selling off assets that they probably actually need for the longer term resilience of their livelihood. So one of the ways to reduce conflict and civil instability is to ensure that people have access to good food.

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