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The World Food Programme—the world’s biggest humanitarian organization— provides food assistance to 100 million people in 88 countries in the face of conflict, climate change and now, COVID-19. WFP is the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Below its Executive Director David Beasley explains the critical role of sustainable food systems


Executive Director of the World Food Programme 

The world’s population is growing exponentially and is expected to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050 – around 2.4 billion more than are alive today. 

This has profound implications for sustainable development, and for the World Food Programme (WFP) and our partners as we work together to banish hunger to the history books. 


The 47 least-developed countries have some of the fastest-growing populations. These are nations where food insecurity and malnutrition are deep-rooted - often the product of conflict and the destructive impact of extreme weather. They are also nations where WFP is heavily engaged in addressing the root causes of hunger, working in partnership with governments to support long-term, sustainable economic development.  


More than 800 million people, one in nine on the planet, go hungry every day – but the shocking truth is that the world produces enough food to feed every one of us. The problem is access – and not just to markets to buy food, but also the means of producing it and of generating the incomes that help families afford it. 

The lack of sustainable livelihoods is often particularly acute in rural communities. This a shameful waste of potential, as those very same communities are home to smallholder farmers who, if given the opportunity and the right support, could be at the forefront of efforts to create a hunger-free world.


Around 500 million smallholder farmers already produce more than 80 percent of the food consumed in large parts of the developing world. Just imagine how much more productive they could be if they were helped to grow crops in a more sustainable way, to store and to move their food, and to sell their produce into commercial markets to boost their incomes and livelihoods. In essence, if we created the dynamic food systems required to transport nutritious food from the farm right onto people’s plates, making markets more effective and ensuring that smallholders, traders and others along the supply chain all profit. 


Here at WFP we are striving to do just that. As the largest humanitarian organization in the world, WFP’s experience in buying and distributing food in over 80 countries means we understand how and where food systems are broken and what is needed to fix them. What’s more, our purchasing power as a major buyer of food commodities and supporting services can fuel progress towards zero hunger, promoting community-based agricultural growth and sustainable social and economic transformation. Every year we increase the amount of food we procure locally – in 2018 alone our purchases in 93 countries totalled US$1.6 billion. 


In Rwanda, we work with the Africa Improved Foods consortium, which produces nutritious processed food for our operations and the local and regional market. Raw products are sourced from smallholder farmers, while local businesses transport the food. It’s a win-win, supporting local traders while producing WFP products that improve nutrition in Rwanda, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. WFP's new local and regional food procurement policy will  strengthen moves towards this more integrated approach to food procurement. 


The benefits of local procurement can be social as much as economic. In Colombia we support efforts to build peace through buying food for our school meals from Multiactiva Paz para Colombia, a farmers’ cooperative which includes former FARC members, following the peace deal of 2016. Local procurement of non-food items, including vehicles, spare parts and fuel, ICT equipment and storage facilities, is also key to our approach in the countries where we work. 


WFP’s efforts to develop sustainable food systems go beyond the traditional, short-term aid distributed during emergencies – though we are still first on the ground when disaster hits – to encompass a wide range of activities that assist vulnerable people and provide regular access to nutritious food. The critical difference is that our assistance also provides a platform for communities to recover from the crisis and gradually build resilience so they can embark on a journey from poverty towards earning a sustainable living.  


Our position as the largest provider of cash in the humanitarian system provides a prime example. When we distribute cash to refugees and other vulnerable groups, we are helping them get food for their families, but also injecting cash into the local economy which can help keep markets functioning. 


In Bangladesh we boosted food security and local markets by providing most of the 840,000 refugees there with a card to buy produce in WFP-contracted shops, working also with retailers on food quality and pricing to ensure a fair and dynamic marketplace. When we distribute cash or food during emergencies such as drought or floods, we help smallholders avoid having to sell off livestock or other precious assets, which in turn means they have a route out of poverty in the longer term. 


Often we distribute cash in return for work on community infrastructure as part of ‘Food for Assets’ programmes which build resilience to shocks and help communities restart production more quickly during emergencies. In Ethiopia I have seen for myself the devastating impact recurrent drought has on rural farming communities in the Somali Region and other areas. We partner with the government on the Productive Safety Net Programme, the biggest in Sub-Saharan Africa, where cash is distributed in exchange for work on projects including water and soil conservation. 


Ethiopian farmers can also access insurance to cover losses incurred during climate shocks, in exchange for working on projects such as land restoration, under WFP’s Rural Resilience Initiative. And they can get loans to buy seeds or livestock to help boost their production. Just as importantly, farmers help to run the project, developing skills that can make it self-sustaining over the long term. Farmers like Haftu Kidanu Hadgu, who collects insurance premiums in his village. “My crops have increased by 50 percent and I make 30 percent more money than before,” Haftu has said. “I am a role model for the project and the community trusts me.” 


Where crops are flourishing at smallholdings, we can move them along the supply chain by connecting farmers to commercial markets. One way is through the Farm to Market Alliance, a public-private sector consortium which trains smallholders are in areas such as post-harvest storage and access to markets, in partnership with local farmer organizations and under the guidance of lead farmers who are trusted within their communities. 


In the 2018-2019 agricultural season alone, the alliance worked with almost 90,000 farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia. On a visit to Tanzania I was invited into one family’s home as they explained how the initiative was helping them increase their incomes and expand their living space. Cutting-edge technology also plays a central role. In Zambia we have piloted an app called ‘Maano’, a virtual farmers’ market that connects them with traders and other buyers, and provides real-time information on crop values.  


I am tremendously proud that WFP has done so much to help nurture the sustainable food systems which can lift millions of people out of poverty and drive long-term food security. But if we are to finally eradicate hunger, national governments must lead the collective effort and determine their  nations’ futures. 


In Kenya, for example, WFP is working with the government on a sustainable food systems approach, with a range of activities supporting smallholder productivity, market access, retail and household consumption, introduced with partners across the supply chain. In the north of the country, which plays host to around 500,000 refugees from neighbouring countries, we are working with local traders to sell porridge to some of those from the camps, who pay using cash transfers from WFP. 


As one trader Lolem Boyo Emilat told us: “Even if customers do not buy there and then, they leave the shop knowing the stocks you have, and they might come back.” 


By opening up new opportunities for traders like Lolem, by boosting the production and trade of smallholders like Haftu in Ethiopia, and by working in partnership with governments like Kenya’s and partners including the private sector, NGOs and other UN agencies, we can together build the thriving, efficient food systems that underpin sustainable development.


Nothing less will do if we are truly to secure a world free from hunger for the generations to come, towards 2050 and beyond.  

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