In pursuit of a hunger-free world
Though yesterday was World Food Day, it should have been called World Hunger Day, as it was established to bring global attention to the problem of food insecurity.
Hunger is a bigger problem than most of us realise, affecting about 795 million people around the world, including some 40 million in Bangladesh. In other words, one in nine people on the planet do not eat enough food to lead a healthy, productive life. The issue is especially pronounced in developing nations, where nearly 13 percent of the population face food insecurity.
As I watch my own son grow up healthy and strong, I am very grateful that my wife and I have been able to provide him with sufficient food. But too many children in our beautiful country suffer the pangs of hunger on a daily basis. We must do all we can to right that wrong.
The effects of chronic hunger go far beyond the pains of an empty stomach. Studies show that physical growth and mental development are stunted in infants and children who do not get sufficient nutrition. That means a hungry childhood can negatively impact a person's entire life.
Similarly, pregnant women who do not get enough good food tend to deliver babies that are smaller and prone to health problems and developmental delays. Women also suffer disproportionately from hunger because they are more likely than men to sacrifice meals when there is insufficient food and children to be fed.
Of course, it's not only necessary to provide people with more food, but healthy, nutritious food that provides enough calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. There is also a problem with "hidden hunger," which is due to deficiencies of micronutrients like iodine and zinc and essential vitamins. This can affect even wealthy households with sufficient food.
We can take pride in the tremendous progress we have made in addressing the chronic food shortages that plagued Bangladesh in the 1970s. Since the year 2000, hunger in our country has been cut in half.
But with so many millions of our citizens, especially children, still facing acute hunger, much remains to be done. We currently have the highest rate of underweight children in South Asia. Half of all children below the age of 5 are chronically undernourished or stunted, and 14 percent suffer from acute undernutrition, according to the World Food Programme.
Providing the people of Bangladesh with sufficient food is a complex problem that is becoming increasingly challenging as we suffer extreme flooding and other effects of climate change. It will take a creative, committed effort to produce more food, reduce food waste, increase incomes and educate people about nutrition—without using more land or creating additional impacts on the environment.
Fortunately, we are seeing some bright rays of hope in regard to food production. This is taking several forms, including achieving higher yields, reducing crop losses and producing more nutritious staple foods, such as rice. What is the source of this hope? Biotechnology.
Our scientists from government research institutes are working now to develop local varieties of rice to deliver higher yields and are enriched with essential nutrients, including zinc and vitamin A.
They are also developing new varieties of potatoes that can naturally resist the devastation of late blight disease. Farmers currently must apply large amounts of fungicide to control this plant disease, which significantly lowers yields. Pesticide use also can be reduced through the adoption of pest-resistant cotton.
We have already seen the great success of our first biotech crop, pest resistant Bt brinjal. Several studies have documented that the farmers who grow these pest-resistant varieties of brinjal achieve higher yields, dramatically curtail their use of pesticides and increase their incomes six-fold. Researchers are now working to breed other varieties of brinjal with this pest-resistant trait.
Though these improved crops offer many benefits, they have been demonised as "GMOs" by those who do not understand the science, deny the need for agricultural innovations and fear biotechnology. However, Bt brinjal has already shown us that these foods are safe to eat and bring farmers many benefits.
Bangladesh has led the way in South Asia by being the first to approve a genetically modified food crop. As the government allows farmers to plant more of these improved crops, we can also lead the way in reducing the hunger and poverty that so many of our people suffer from.
This year's World Food Day theme is "Healthy diets for a zero-hunger world." Biotechnology can help us achieve that goal. Our children are depending on us to make the right choices—choices that will help them lead healthy, productive, hunger-free lives.
Md Arif Hossain is the executive director of Farming Future Bangladesh, affiliated with Cornell University in the US and a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University.