Freedom From Hunger: Lessons From Egypt

Remarking on unrest across the Middle East and Northern Africa, President Obama recently emphasized the universal "hunger for freedom" that has empowered the Arab street and seized the attention of the world. Looking at the triggers of the unrest and the needs for sustaining the progress that's been made, it would be equally important for President Obama and other global leaders to examine the role of "freedom from hunger."

Only two weeks ago, as Hosni Mubarak resigned in Egypt, I was in New Delhi at a conference hosted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on leveraging agriculture to improve nutrition and health. At the event, Prime Minister Singh of India put the issue clearly: "Malnutrition is not only a consequence of poverty, it is a cause of poverty."

But in the West, where we enjoy greater food security and have more short-term resilience to rising prices, what do food shortages mean for us? And where do solutions lie?

The first opportunity in the near term is the upcoming G20 Conference where global leaders will address food commodity speculation and its contribution to the food price crisis. President Sarkozky of France has already explicitly said he will push for changes, and emerging markets like Indonesia have listed addressing these issues as a priority. The G20 Conference is an ideal platform to bring leaders together to create tangible strategies and solutions for improving food and nutrition security.

We must also make an immediate attempt to reduce waste. According to a recent study, at least 30 percent of food grown - and as much as 50 percent according to some estimates - is lost or wasted before or after it reaches the consumer. Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of fresh water goes to agriculture, and of that, as much as 40 percent is wasted. As our planet adds two billion more people over the next thirty years, we need to be strategic and serious about how we allocate increasingly scarce resources. Solving the waste dilemma is paramount to achieving freedom from hunger.

Finally, governments and the private sector need to invest in agricultural research, and realize the next agricultural revolution will come from nutrient-rich biofortified crops that are more resistant to drought, offer higher yields and improve the quality of basic staples foods for those who need it most. A true agricultural revolution based on sound research can help us protect those most vulnerable to malnutrition and its generational effects.

On my way back from India, we stopped in Bangladesh to meet with our program leaders and partners on the ground. It was during our long drives through the crowded streets of Dhaka, that the issue of food insecurity and the implications of rising food prices came to life. We witnessed men and women in long lines waiting for rations of rice, which has increased in price 100 percent over the past three years. Moreover, 85 percent of their children under the age of two suffer from anemia, creating an entire generation in, one of the world's ten most populous nations that may never reach their full potential because of early childhood malnutrition.

To mitigate the high rates of childhood anemia we are supporting a partnership between a local pharmaceutical company, Renata, and BRAC, the world's largest NGO, to distribute low cost sachets of essential vitamins and minerals. These sachets can be easily added to locally prepared food. Consuming 2-3 sachets a week will meet the nutrient gap for children ages 6-24 months for less than 6 cents a week. The partnership aims to reach more than 7 million children over the coming years.

Developing solutions to protect the most vulnerable from rising food costs will not be easy. But if we are committed to creating a more sustainable and secure future for us all, it's necessary for us to begin taking real steps now to overcome issues of food and nutrition security. We should encourage the hunger for freedom, but to make freedom sustainable, we must empower the world's poor to achieve freedom from hunger.