Gebremedhin Gebreegziabher1,2 | Lisa Clark1,3 | Jill Hobbs1,3 | Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez4
Rickey Yada5 | Michael Nickerson1,2
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ‘Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’1. The definition embodies everyone’s basic right to adequate food, to be free from hunger and to enjoy general human dignity2. Despite this, one in every eight people does not have enough to eat, therefore, the food that is produced must also contain sufficient nutrients to sustain life and fend off diseases, thus the term food security must also imply nutritional security, i.e., food and nutrition security. For the purpose of this review both the terms “food and nutrition security” and the “food security” will be used interchangeably. Ever since the food price crisis in 2008, which caused social and political unrest in several developing nations, there has been a renewed sense of urgency and commitment among political and scientific communities toward increasing food production and meeting the challenges of an ever-increasing world population set to reach the nine billion mark by 20503. Although food and nutrition insecurity remains a significant challenge in many regions of the world, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, as well some countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, account for ~90% of undernourished people in the world. In these high-risk populations, poor nutrition accounts for almost 50% of all childhood mortality under the age of five years, with childhood malnutrition causing over 2.5 million deaths every year. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that there were at least two billion people with vitamin and/or mineral deficiencies. These deficiencies are highly treatable with the appropriate foods/supplements. Lack of food/good nutrition means loss of economic activity greatly needed in developing countries as populations cannot work at full capacity when their health is diminished, and therefore economic progress is stalled. Industrialized nations, such as Canada and the United States are not immune either, albeit lesser in severity and magnitude relative to the total population. Food insecurity is also not necessarily restricted to remote locations, such as those experienced by indigenous people in Northern Canada, but also occurs in many urban and rural settings that have at-risk populations4. Recent statistics from Statistics Canada5 published in 2015 describing 2011-2012 data reported the following:
• Rates of food insecurity have been relatively stable since 2007;
• Approximately 5% of children and 8% of adults in Canada live in homes where food is insecure;
• Approximately, 8.3% of Canadian households experienced some level of food insecurity; the rates are highest in Nunavut (36.7%);
• The rate of food insecurity is three times higher in homes whose main source of income was government benefits relative to those with alternative income sources; and
• Single parent families with children under 18 tend to experience the greatest food insecurity.
Although access to affordable nutritious food within Canada is of significant importance, this review focuses on highlighting Canada’s role on the world stage in addressing global food insecurity issues as it relates to research initiatives.
Canada has consistently been a strong international partner to the United Nations in terms of increasing food security in developing nations. At the G8 2009 L’Aquila Summit, Canada announced its food security strategy providing significant funding towards: a) food assistance and nutrition, including supporting programs that promote life-saving nutrient rich food supplements (such as the World Food Program or WFP), and strengthening national and regional food reserves for alleviating crises in times of natural disasters, famine and war; b) sustainable agricultural development; and c) research and development, through the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, www.international.gc.ca) and the International Development Research Centre. Further, the Canadian Government works to help secure the future of children and youth internationally, including aiding in maternal, newborn and child health through accessing nutritional supplements and therapeutic foods, and contributing to school food programs.
Factors affecting food insecurity and the impact on basic life
Global food and nutrition insecurity is driven by a complex set of integrated factors, some of which include: poverty, population growth, urbanization, unstable social and political regimes, war and civil unrest, constraints in natural resources, transportation, a poor human resource-base, gender inequality, inadequate education, crop disease/infection, poor health and natural disasters (e.g., drought and famine). Many of these factors can have a severe impact on food production, supply, price volatility, food waste, institutional policies, trade, production of non-food crops, as well as stresses on water and desertification and climate change6-9.
Many studies have indicated that adults in food and nutrition insecure households have poorer mental and physical health, poorer oral health, greater stress, and are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and mood and anxiety disorders. Recent research in developing countries reveals a higher risk for obesity among food insecure individuals when compared to their food secure peers10. Food and nutrition insecurity also makes it difficult to manage existing chronic conditions such as diabetes and HIV. For example, food and nutrition insecure individuals with HIV infection that is associated with increased energy and protein needs are critically constrained in their ability to control the quality and quantity of food they consume11. In the case of children, malnutrition can lead to issues surrounding growth and development, stunting, brain development, behavioural and social challenges11.
Role of government and university research in Canada
In order to meet the needs of the growing global population and reduce food and nutrition insecurity in developing nations, various research initiatives and institutions have been set up across Canada. For instance, the Canadian government funds research projects through the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), led by researchers from Canadian universities and organizations to tackle a wide range of issues. These include topics such as sustainable agricultural, complementary foods, improve feeding strategies for livestock, enhanced crop yield, urban agriculture, soil fertility, labour saving farming technology, animal vaccines, food preservation, irrigation technology, on-farm food safety12,13. A few examples include: a) developing innovative packaging and nanotechnology to extend the shelf life of fruit to reduce post-harvest losses of mangoes under poor storage conditions in Sri Lanka and India14 (based at the University of Guelph), and b) improving potato production for increased food security and nutrition of indigenous communities in Colombia (based at McGill University)15-17. At the University of Saskatchewan, the Global Institute of Food Security has funded initiatives focused on the development of therapeutic food products comprised of pulses and cereals, optimized for protein quality as a means to address moderately acute malnutrition in Northern Ethiopia, as well as another initiative focused on the bio-fortification of lentils in Bangladesh. This is now underpinned by discovery research into critical factors for crop productivity or nutritional quality, such as seed development, rhizosphere biology and nutrigenomics. Further, an International Nutrition Group based at the University of British Columbia tackles food security through projects ranging from the development of micronutrient powders, gender and food culture, food safety and enhanced agricultural productivity18. In addition, the Global Institute of Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan and the McGill Institute for Global Food Security at McGill University are two examples where Universities are already mobilizing resources to drive research and innovation in this area. Research tends to be highly collaborative, multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional in nature. Canadian universities working on food security related topics count with a very important critical mass of experts in the various disciplines (i.e., soil, plant, food, animal, and environmental sciences, nutrition, bio-resource engineering, economics, and social sciences) required to generate advances towards global food and nutrition security, which continue to be among the most critical goals in sustainable international development. Nevertheless, the multidisciplinary work demands the incorporation of an intersectorial approach, without which advances in the “real world” are impossible. In order to achieve real impact in the livelihoods of the most vulnerable populations to hunger the academic sector is obliged to establish and constantly cultivate the collaboration with the private and public sectors, as well as with the non-governmental sector. To be effective and positively impact people’s everyday life, the collaboration needs to stretch all the way from the conception of ideas, solutions and innovations to their implementation on the field. This is an approach that although theoretically conceived years ago is just recently making its way into actual work environments.
Role of NGOs
Domestic and International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Canada link their activities with governmental agencies like Foreign Affairs Trade and Development Canada (FATDC) or Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and other NGOs to maximize the reach and effectiveness of food assistance strategies in the developing world. The emphasis of these organizations is sustainable development in working towards alleviating food insecurity and poverty. For example, NGO Canadian Hunger Foundation has worked on food security issues for over 50 years. Recently, it has committed to grassroots projects in rural communities in Ethiopia, Ghana and Bangladesh to help farmers diversify crop and livestock productivity to equip people to better adjust to economic or environmental shocks and stresses that impact local food production19. Other NGOs like UNICEF Canada partner with the private sector and governmental agencies to provide food assistance to those who are suffering from malnutrition and undernutrition18,20. In conjunction with other UN agencies, UNICEF Canada collects donations and supports international projects geared towards children’s health and wellbeing including the procurement and distribution of ready-to-use therapeutic foods for emergency food situations. Oxfam Canada and Save the Children Canada are also working towards addressing food insecurity issues by linking their efforts with other Canadian stakeholders.
Corporate social responsibility
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is as important component of Canada’s commitment to international food security goals. Firms increasingly view responsible innovation in the agrifood sector as a strategic necessity to ensure long-term sustainability and to create “shared value” through their activities and investments, benefiting all stakeholders in the agrifood supply chain. Maple Leaf Foods, for example, has a community outreach programme that supports food and nutrition research seeking to address international food security challenges. Maple Leaf Foods currently supports UNICEF Canada by providing emergency relief funding and food supplies to those in need21. In Saskatchewan, Potash Corp has invested $35 M towards Food Security research through the Global Institute for Food Security, with Viterra committed an additional $2 million to the Institute. Government agencies also see an opportunity to invest in growth strategies that draw on the strengths of stakeholders in the private sector. The Canadian government promotes accountability and innovation by private sector investment through the G-20 initiative AgResults. AgResults “only disburses public funds to partners that demonstrate measurable results in targeted areas such as improving harvest management and nutritional fortification of staple foods.”22 Moving forward, CSR in the agrifood sector requires collaborative and coordinated efforts between public and private actors to address emergency food aid situations and to deliver responsive and accountable projects that deliver broader social and economic benefits.
In summary, Canada continues to strive to address challenges associated with global food insecurities around the globe through research and innovation, knowledge transfer and capacity building within the high risk communities. Through partnerships and a highly collaborative environment between universities, NGOs and industry, lives are being saved and communities being built.
“Solving hunger boosts economic development, builds the brains and bodies of the next generation and builds a stronger, more prosperous and secure world.” (World Food Program, www.wfp.org)
1Global Institute of Food Security, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK
2Department of Food and Bioproduct Sciences, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK
3Department of Bio-resource, Policy and Business Economics, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK
4McGill Institute for Global Food Security, McGill University, Montreal, PQ
5Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia 248-2357 Main Mall Vancouver, BC
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