I was eight when a severe drought devastated the small village where I lived in Zimbabwe. A ferocious heat wave dried up the river, destroyed crops, killed livestock, and left us starving. One day, I was so weak that I passed out. In my young mind, I thought I was going to die. Fortunately, an African woman who worked for the United Nations found me, gave me a bowl of porridge and saved my life.
Several years later, it remains incomprehensible how hunger, the very hunger that nearly killed me, is still so rampant. We produce enough food to feed everyone in this society, yet one in nine people still go to sleep hungry and malnutrition remains the leading cause of death and disease in the world. So how else can global hunger be solved? In addition to addressing conflicts and other underlying causes, both structural and systemic, we need to change the way we think about food – not as a commodity but as a fundamental right – and, consequently, the way we produce and consume it.
In my childhood years, in the early 1980s, famine was mainly considered an “African problem”. Today, hunger and extreme hunger continue to have a disproportionate impact on the African continent and in those developing countries that are most affected by climate change. Droughts, such as the one that affected my community, and other extreme weather events such as floods, storms and heat waves, increasingly put lives and livelihoods at risk. Yet, the countries most affected by these phenomena are those that have contributed least to the greenhouse gas emissions that have caused them.
And then there are the food waste. One third of the food produced in the world is lost because it is poorly stored or wasted at the consumer level in rich countries, when it is not eaten or left to deteriorate in refrigerators and pantries. Wasted food is the third largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, behind the United States and China, a further factor worsening the effects of climate change on communities in developing countries.
On 23 September, the United Nations organized the first Summit on Food Systems in New York, as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Summit wants to promote bold new actions for the advancement of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, each of which is based in some way on more sustainable, healthier and more equitable food systems. This is particularly true of the second SDG, the one that points the way to a world with zero hunger and without malnutrition. To get there, however, we need collective actions that transform our food systems, that is, the complex set of figures and processes that ensure that food reaches our tables.
If we want to end hunger, we must stop considering it as someone else’s problem: it must instead be a shared responsibility that requires global solidarity in both developing and developed countries. The equation is simple: if, all together, we are responsible for creating the problem, then we must, all together, also be able to solve it. Now more than ever we realize how much individual actions and behaviors can truly have a significant impact on the lives of other people in other parts of the world. This awareness has shaped my growth and is at the heart of Ubuntu’s ancient African wisdom – “I am because we are”. Ubuntu means that we are part of a greater whole, connected to each other by our shared humanity, that same humanity that saved my life then. Wisdom tells us how our joys and sufferings are closely related to the joys and sufferings of others. What affects one of us will one day affect all of us in various ways. But, above all, it tells us that if we really want to overcome the challenges, the only way is to work all together, as a large community.
* Elizabeth Nyamayaro is Special Advisor to the World Food Program