United Nations tackles food prices and insecurity

The joint meeting of Executive Boards of UNDP/UNFPA; UNICEF and
WFP met in New
York City
on January
23, 2009
to discuss unstable food prices and the linkage to food and
nutrition security.

The Executive Director of UNICEF made a presentation
pointing out the impact of fluctuating food prices on the world’s most
vulnerable groups, noting that when food prices increase, many families
decrease the quantity and quality of the food consumed, withdraw children from
school to save school fees, delay medical attention to save expenses, or sell
assets or borrow to get medical attention with long-term accumulated
vulnerability for the poor with women and children suffering the most.

The background paper noted that commercial and rural farmers
who are net food producers have benefited from high food prices. It warned that
net food sellers are a minority especially in Africa.
The losers have been the urban poor who purchase all their food and
small-holder farmers who are net food buyers.

UNICEF’s Executive Director observed that although food
prices have declined from the highs of the mid-2008, they have remained well
above 2000 levels, causing low income countries to continue to suffer the
negative impact especially those mostly in Africa that depend heavily on food

The global financial downturn and its adverse impact on
trade, remittances and aid flows along with continuing conflicts and natural
disasters will cause fiscal contraction and undermine development efforts,
purchasing power and increase vulnerability of the poor. Since
the food crisis the number of food insecure has increased from 850 million
people to an estimated one billion.

The Executive Director observed that food security does not
necessarily mean nutrition security, the latter entails consumption [and
absorption] of adequate nutrients which is linked to safe water, hygiene,
sanitation and quality health-care services. A child who suffers diarrhea loses
nutrients. Acute and chronic malnutrition are underlying causes of child,
maternal and elderly mortality.

When food is scarce, it can lead to an increase in gender
inequality putting women and girls at greater risk of malnutrition. And in
crisis and conflict situations, women and children have difficulty obtaining
adequate food because of the threat of instability and violence.

Poor maternal nutrition results in higher rates of maternal
mortality and low birth weight. The impact of malnourished children in the
first two years can last a lifetime with a negative impact on learning and
earning. Food scarcity puts people with special nutritional requirements such
as young children and people with chronic diseases such as HIV/AIDS at
increased risk. In 2007, 9.2 million children under the age of five died from
largely preventable causes and malnutrition contributed to more than one third
of those child deaths.

A UN response to the food crisis was developed in 2008
through a Comprehensive Framework of Action by the Secretary-General’s High
Level Task Force on Global Food Security Crisis with short and long-term
outcomes in expanding agricultural production, nutrition intervention, social
protection system and monitoring arrangements.

Through collaboration with public, private, NGOs and other
stakeholders and coordination with Regional directors and UN Country Teams
support is provided to strengthen vulnerability assessments and situation
analyses; expand the treatment of children severely malnourished; extend school
feeding programs; improve voucher and cash transfer programs; expand public
works programs; and help small farmers produce and sell [surplus] nutritious food
for use in government safety net activities and mobilize resources to reduce
fluctuating impact of food prices.

The Task Force has identified twenty seven food insecure
countries for intensified coordinated UN response including joint assessments
in support of national response and expansion of nutrition interventions.
Additionally, a focus is put on increasing agricultural productivity and total
production. The World Bank and Regional Development Banks are providing
increased resources for agricultural development.

The Executive Director stressed that priority
should be placed on breast feeding and on complementary and supplementary foods
for children and women and on safety nets. She stressed once more the
importance of school feeding programs in improving retention of children in
school which can also help provide take-home supplements for household food
fortification. She called for a shared sense of urgency in order to meet the
MDGs by 2015.