As I prepared this editorial, the G20 Summit was taking place in Germany. The G20 was founded in 1999, and consists of a group of influential countries and Governors of Central Banks to collaborate to discuss international financial stability. For a while I kept wondering what this year’s AGENDA would be. I wondered whether it would include anything about world hunger and the suffering of so many women and children who continue to go hungry each day, year in year out. The world today faces enormous challenges and fairly serious problems: yes, financial stability is always and the very reason why G8, which then became the G20, was established in the first place; terrorism and cyber-attacks are now taking centre stage. Climate variability and the environment cannot be left out. Energy issues and how to continue to power the world in an environmentally sustainable way, is a major issue of concern. The United Nations was created in 1946 after both the 1st and 2nd World Wars, to bring nations together to address the issues facing the globe then, which could not be solved by any one nation or organization.

Given that it came after the Second World War, a major mandate was to promote world order and peace, and to avert any such conflicts in the future. To a large extent, that is what the United Nations (UN) has been all about. The United Nations was inaugurated on 24 October 1945, to replace the League of Nations, starting with 51 nations at its founding and now 193. The organization is financed by voluntary contributions from its member states. Its objectives include maintaining international peace and security, promoting human rights, fostering social and economic development, protecting the environment, and providing humanitarian aid in cases of famine, natural disaster, and armed conflict. The UN is the largest, most familiar, most internationally represented and most powerful intergovernmental organization in the world. The UN encompasses all nations, both rich and poor, both small and big. The United Nations is also a member of G20. It is hoped that the G20 would go beyond the issues that affect just the rich nations, and bring to the world attention the interconnectedness of nations and peoples.

The United Nations deals with all issues that appear to destabilize the World Order, and through its various agencies tackles virtually all issues that touch on human basic rights: food, shelter, water and clothing. The UN tackles refugee issues, human displacement both of which usually come as a result of human conflict, civil war, famine or economic hardships. For the UN to be effective, it needs to be well funded. Oftentimes, it would appear that the nations which need the United Nations the most are the poorer ones. These nations cannot provide enough funding for the UN to fulfill all its mandates. From my observations over the years, I have come to the conclusion that there is enough, especially food, to be shared in the world. Yet, inequity and inequality continue to deepen. It is difficult to maintain peace and world order when most of the world can hardly afford a decent meal, while a small fraction is super rich and even waste food. I am not talking of charity here. I am talking of human dignity. The current world events are forcing countries to virtually close their borders. I wonder whether that makes us any safer. We might feel safer, but are we really? What causes Africans to leave their homes and risk dying at sea, going to places they do not even know, to places where they are not even wanted? Clearly, as they leave they give the impression that their countries of birth have failed them. They go looking for better opportunities for their families. Yet, many of the countries they come from have received foreign aid over decades, which if better used, could improve the lives of their citizens, and thus leave them with little excuse to leave.

According to FAO, the number of people hungry surpassed one billion back in 2009; actual figures will be released in September, according to a recent press release.

Food is indeed life, and here I include water. Food requires water: to grow, to wash, to cook, and to drink. Even if the food is nutritious, of high quality and safe, if it is consumed with bad water, that negates what we would be trying to achieve. This is 2017 and yet millions still do not have access to clean potable water. Now with climate change, those who practice rain-fed agriculture are discovering that the rain patterns are affecting what they can grow, when they can grow it, and the kind of harvest they can expect. Governments in vulnerable regions are finding themselves in a difficult situation of having to explain what is going on. It is possible that many governments do not invest enough on climate mitigation measures. They also do not invest enough in research, and so have to rely on information sources they may not even trust. The recent maize (corn) shortage crisis in Kenya is a classic example of everything gone wrong. Since the early 1900s, maize began to be Kenya’s main staple, replacing such small grains as sorghum and finger and bulrush millets. State agricultural research committed the bulk of its funding to maize, releasing different types of seed varieties over the years.

As time went on, campaigns were mounted to convince Kenyans to consume maize, highlighting its attributes, virtually at the expense of the more climate adaptable small cereals.

Within a whole century, maize growing and consumption had taken root in Kenya, to the extent that one would have a hard time believing that this grain was introduced to Africa, to Kenya, from Mexico during the slave trade era. A lack of understanding of nutrition, of food cultural values, and changing climate issues plays a big part in governments and farmers finding themselves in a predicament where consumers depend on one food only. It is so unfortunate that for most of the 45 million Kenyans, when there is no maize, then there is no food. Yet, there are so many other foods that serve as staples and may even be more nutritious than maize. People can thrive on traditional staples such as, cassava, potatoes, rice, yams, plantain, or wheat bread. It could also be meat as for the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania. However, consumers have been moving further and further away from these healthy traditional foods. Then in the past 2 decades or so, as the middle class has grown in Kenya, urbanization increased and exposure to other cultures became a reality, food taste and preferences have inevitably changed.

Convenience foods are more available as food outlets have also been introduced in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. Now, the population is exhibiting the same unhealthy conditions that are found in more developed populations. This includes obesity, cancers of different types, and cardiac conditions. Increased movement by people and consumption of processed foods seem to be bringing out allergic reactions. Allergies were rare in Africa when I was growing up. In any case, if it was a child, it was believed he/she would outgrow the allergy. Most foods consumed, especially by children, were diverse, but they were fresh. The good thing is that there are now tests to confirm allergies and to begin to narrow down the list of sensitive components.

What is worrying is that more and more people, including adults are developing allergies. What is even more perplexing is that there may be multiple allergies, and to things that are embedded in foods and which the consumer may not be aware of. Emerging economies need not make the same mistakes as the more industrialized countries. Working closely with the private sector, with food handlers and with farmers and consumers ensures a safer food supply for the population. Governments too need to invest in research and capacity building at various levels.

Clearly, there is so much to be concerned about when it comes to the food most people eat. The consumer needs to be educated, in order to take personal responsibility of the food he/she eats.

Food can be a life saver, but it can also kill. Let us all work together to help solve world food problems.

Ruth Oniang’o
Editor-in-Chief, AJFAND