5 Questions for Eran Bendavid on Global Food Insecurity
The Center for Innovation in Global Health speaks with Bendavid about which populations are most vulnerable to malnutrition and food insecurity driven by poverty, climate change, and natural disasters — as well as the increasing role that conflicts and politics play in access to food.
Access to reliable and nutritious food is critical to good health and childhood development. Such access is increasingly threatened in many parts of the world by factors like climate change, political unrest, conflict, and COVID-19. These inter-related crises are driving food insecurity and malnutrition for more than 800 million people around the world. Some countries, like Somalia and the Tigray region of Ethiopia, now face the threat of famine.
Eran Bendavid, MD, MS, a global health faculty fellow at the Center for Innovation in Global Health and an associate professor of health policy, spends a lot of time thinking about how such complex and inter-related factors impact a population’s health. Bendavid began his training and career focused on infectious diseases and over time has expanded his research to explore how changing environments (natural, social, or political) impact and shape population health in poorer parts of the world.
We spoke with Bendavid about which populations are most vulnerable to malnutrition and food insecurity driven by poverty, climate change, and natural disasters — as well as the increasing role that conflicts and politics play in access to food.
1. What are the primary drivers of food insecurity around the world, and who is most at risk?
When I think of places that are food insecure, I think of two main drivers: poverty and food distribution.
Food distribution — ensuring that food is flowing and everyone across a country has access — is deeply tied to big famines. The issue with famines is typically not that there isn’t enough food in a country, but rather that a region for some reason has become isolated or cut off from food. Indian economist Amartya Sen has written that, throughout history, famines have primarily taken place because a government is not capable or motivated to provide for its people, or because conflict has isolated an area. He argues that famines do not happen under a caring and capable government. With all the terrible things happening in the world, there is still more than enough food to put in every mouth every night. What we see happening with the famine in Somalia is in some ways a case study of how conflict and political insecurity collide. Not only is the government busy with conflict and insurgencies, but NGOs are afraid to go to affected areas, and even those that are not afraid have a really hard time reaching them.
And while malfunctioning food distribution systems often drive extreme famines, the more common form of hunger, food insecurity (kids going to bed hungry or not having enough to grow and thrive) is more often related to poverty and cycles of hand-to-mouth existence. People living in these situations, like smallholder farmers, can be very susceptible to changes in climate or economics.
COVID-19 is the elephant in the room with food insecurity: The World Food Programme has estimated around two hundred million kids are going to be food-insecure as a result of the pandemic and the resulting reduction in global trade and increase in global poverty. It’s been a pretty dramatic setback to development. I think we’re going to see the impacts of that ripple across many sectors for a long time.