Microparticles That Could Alleviate Global Malnutrition
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), iron deficiency is the most common consequence of poor nutrition worldwide. Every year, 2 million children die globally from malnutrition. Efforts to refortify foods date back to the early 20th century, but the technology to stabilize those nutrients in different foods has progressed slowly. In a breakthrough method of encapsulating micronutrients, researchers at MIT have discovered a way to refortify common foods by using biocompatible polymers that have shown in efficacy trials to prevent degradation while being stored or cooked. The new method would allow for better nutrient delivery and absorption. If there were microparticles that could alleviate global malnutrition, such a development, if scaled up, could provide many developing countries with more nutritious food and prevent malnutrition-related diseases that primarily affect children and pregnant women.

Micronutrient Malnutrition

Malnutrition primarily affects those living in developing countries and the malnourished often represent 30 percent of their population. Malnutrition presents itself in a variety of ways, but most notably through anemia, cognitive impairments and blindness. Roughly 2 billion people live in low-resource areas where infectious diseases compound the effects of malnutrition. The lack of micronutrients is a quiet and prolonged killer and can cause premature death and loss of economic activity. There is also a direct correlation between those with the least education and most iron-deficient in these countries.

WHO has worked to tackle the causes of malnutrition using solutions such as promoting dietary diversification with enhanced iron absorption and supplementation, noting that solutions must meet the local population needs. Since many of these communities lack more than one vital micronutrient, efforts to supplement the diet can address multiple deficiencies, such as lack of folate, vitamins A and B12. Part of their plan includes programs that aim to eradicate infectious diseases that contribute to anemia, including schistosomiasis, hookworm, HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. Doing so would help end the cycle of poverty that many communities face due to disease and malnutrition.

Microparticles That Could Alleviate Global Malnutrition

The lead authors of the MIT study are Aaron Anselmo and Xian Xu, as well as graduate student Simone Buerkli from ETH Zurich. In the study, they claim to have developed a new way of refortifying foods using a biocompatible polymer microparticle. What is most notable about this new technology for supplementing foods is that the encapsulated micronutrients will not degrade during cooking or storage. Researchers selected the polymer BMC out of the 50 different polymers they tested, after trying them on laboratory rats and later on women. The same polymer is already classified in the United States as a dietary supplement safe for consumption. The next step for the researchers is to advance clinical trials in developing countries with local participants.

The researchers were able to encapsulate 11 different micronutrients using polymer BMC, such as vitamins A, C, B2, zinc, niacin, biotin and iron. They were able to successfully encapsulate combinations of up to four micronutrients at a time. Even after boiling encapsulated micronutrients for hours in a lab, they remained unharmed. Researchers also found that the new microparticles remained stable after experiencing exposure to oxidizing chemicals in fruits and vegetables as well as ultraviolet light. The polymers become soluble in acidic conditions (such as the stomach) and the micronutrients released. An initial trial did not yield a high absorption rate, so researchers boosted the iron sulfate from 3 to 18 percent and were successfully able to achieve high absorption rates, which was on par with typical iron sulfate. This trial added encapsulate iron to flour and used it to bake bread.

History and Limitations of Food Fortification

In its Guidelines on Food Fortification with Micronutrients in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the WHO noted that the most common deficiencies were in iodine, vitamin A and iron, representing 0.8 million deaths annually. Developed nations typically do not experience these levels of malnutrition because they have access to a variety of foods that are rich in micronutrients, such as meat and dairy products. Underdeveloped countries consume mostly monocultures of cereals, tubers and roots. Prior to the 1980s, developed countries focused their efforts on protein-energy malnutrition. While protein-based foods did help to improve nutrition, it was the addition of iodine to foods in the 1990s that helped prevent degenerative characteristics such as brain damage and mental retardation in childhood.

To combat micronutrient malnutrition, WHO promotes greater access to a variety of quality foods for all affected groups. In addition to a more diverse diet, they strategize to create policies and programs with governments and organizations to educate the public on good nutrition, diversify food production and deliverability, implement measures to guarantee food safety and provide supplementation. Having the support of the food industry has been essential since the beginning of the 20th century to include these guidelines in their production of food. Salt iodization in the 1920s expanded from developed countries to nearly the entire world. However, a number of challenges have remained for the refortification of foods.

For example, early on in the fight against malnutrition, a lack of quality evaluation programs on the efficacy of food refortification left nutritionists wondering if the empirical improvements for certain populations were due to supplementation or a combination of socioeconomic facts and public health improvements. Analyzing the data with a comprehensive efficacy trial became the norm in an effort to better gauge the efficacy of their efforts. Other issues remain such as interactions of nutrients, the stability of polymers, correct levels of nutrients, physical properties of ingredients and how well customers receive the food. For instance, in large amounts, calcium inhibits iron absorption while vitamin C has the opposite effect in refortified foods.

Implications of the Study

The MIT study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, modeled its research on the success of refortifying food with iodized salt from the past, incorporating micronutrients into a diet that would not require people to change their consumption habits. According to researchers, the next phase will be to replicate the study in a developing country with malnutrition to see if the microparticles can feasibly enter residents’ diets. They are seeking approval from the WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives. If successful, they will scale up manufacturing of the nutrient additive in the form of a powdered micronutrient.

The initiative could lead to a significant decline in global cases of nutrient deficiencies thereby reducing the effects of anaemia and other preventable diseases due to a poor immune system. By no means would it represent the first technological advance in refortifying foods and increasing access to nutrition, but the addition of microparticles that could alleviate global malnutrition may help many developing nations end a cycle of poverty that disease has perpetuated for generations, increasing their health and productivity in the process.

– Caleb Cummings
Photo: Flickr

Durian Fruit Will Transform ElectricityAround the world, millions rise with sunlight and go to bed with the moonlight, not because of preference, but because of lack of choice. In 2016, 13 percent of people around the world did not have electricity. Lack of electricity hampers the development of impoverished nations around the world. Developed nations’ sustainability relies on electricity. According to the World Bank, lack of electricity hampers developments in healthcare, education, gender equality and occupations. However, many third world nations may not see electricity in their neighborhoods for many years to come. With approximately 940 million people living without electricity, a significant gap has developed between the haves and the have-nots. Upon observation of the gap, it was important for scientists to figure out how durian fruit will transform electricity everywhere.

What Is Durian?

Durian is a valued fruit native to tropical regions around the world, but most commonly found in Southern Asia in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Durian is most widely known as the smelliest fruit in the world, but it is also very nutritious. In fact, in many countries, different places have restrictions on where this fruit can and cannot go. Many South Asian cultures value durian fruit, but have no need of the skin; it is simply thrown away. Excitingly, experts figured out how durian fruit will transform electricity everywhere. Scientists discovered that durian fruit’s surface is transformable into something called aerogels—a part commonly used inside batteries.

According to Sydney University, the method is entirely non-toxic. The aerogels can replace parts of a standard phone battery. They perform much more efficiently than modern-day batteries do. While this non-toxic method will allow smartphones to charge at astonishing rates more consistently, it also opens up possibilities to provide impoverished communities with low-cost electricity initiatives.

This method differs from any others because of its convenience. Communities that value durian are already throwing out the skin. This means there is a cost-effective way to provide materials and a non-toxic manner of production, resulting in low-cost access to energy.

Benefits Of Electricity

With electricity, communities develop communication services. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this allows people to build their quality of living rapidly. If there is a lack of supplies or an important governmental initiative, communication services allow for this information and materials to be accessed much quicker than traditional methods. Along with communication services, electricity allows people to preserve goods for longer.

With the ability to produce low-cost energy, impoverished communities are more capable of accessing electricity into their daily lives. The implementation of electricity into underprivileged communities allows them to develop their quality of life.The durian may be the key to cheaper and more readily available electricity. This could provide people in developing countries with lower-cost electricity for everyday items. With objects such as refrigerators and freezers, underprivileged people can stock up on food, thus helping to diminish high rates of starvation. Furthermore, cleaner forms of electricity can provide light, heat and easier cooking.

– Cleveland Lewis

Photo: Unsplash

Clean Cooking Technology
Wood-based cooking harms the health of humans and the environment. KopaGas is one of many social enterprises tackling this problem by transitioning Tanzanian families to a clean cooking technology that is gas-based rather than wood-based through an innovative pay-as-you-go business model.

Imagine that a family is cooking dinner in the kitchen. They put charcoal into the stove and water for stew begins to boil. As the water heats, thick, grey smoke from the stove fills the room, the family’s lungs and the surrounding forest. In Tanzania, 96 percent of the population still uses dirty fuel sources like charcoal and firewood for cooking purposes. This has a harmful impact on respiratory health and the country’s ecology.

Effects of Wood-Based Cooking

Cooking with charcoal and firewood is comparable to exposing oneself to the smoke of 400 cigarettes per hour. Such air contamination contributes to roughly 4.3 million deaths per year worldwide. In Tanzania, respiratory infections are the second leading cause of death after malaria. In addition to devastating health effects, the resulting smoke causes ecological damage, particularly deforestation. A shocking 55 percent of the global wood harvest, representing 9 percent of primary energy supply, stems from traditional woodfuels.

To add to this, most wood-burning stoves are inefficient. Around 85 to 90 percent of the energy content of wood that people use for cooking becomes lost through the process of combustion. Such inefficiency means that people need to cut down more trees to satisfy the demand for woodfuel.

KopaGas as a Solution

Scientists Sebastian Rodriguez-Sanchez and Andron Mendes sought to address these health and environmental challenges head-on by creating clean cooking technology. In 2015, Rodriguez-Sanchez and Mendes co-founded KopaGas. The enterprise uses proprietary technology to help Tanzanian families transition to gas-based cooking.

Households pay an upfront fee of $6.50 to receive a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cooking kit. Families pay for the gas through a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) model via mobile phone payment. A smart meter that attaches to the LPG cooking kit measures gas consumption feeding back into the mobile application. Transparent information allows families to understand consumption patterns which can help return control over personal finances.

KopaGas’ innovation is revolutionary not because it utilizes clean cooking methods, but rather because it makes gas-cooking affordable through the PAYG system. Rodriguez-Sanchez told Reuters that the PAYG model needs to prove itself at a large scale to attract greater levels of investment. However, KopaGas is already gaining early financial support from the Acumen Fund, HRSV, Saisan Co. and DEG / KFW.

In January 2020, the U.K.-based holding company, Circle Gas Limited, acquired KopaGas’ PAYG technology. The company aims to expand access to technology across Sub-Saharan Africa, where 900 million people have yet to transition to modern and clean cooking fuels. Further expansion will then move into East Africa where the focus of 2020 is in Kenya.

Innovating Clean Cooking

While KopaGas is attempting to transition households from woodfuel-based cooking to gas-cooking, others are taking completely different approaches. One example is ServedOnSalt that emerged in collaboration with the DTU Skylab_FoodLab, a Food System Change laboratory that Roberto Flore founded and leads. The ServedOnSalt project developed a battery using solar energy, salt and water to create a cheap and clean-powered cooking stove. KopaGas,  ServedOnSalt and other social enterprises within the clean cooking technology space are fundamentally transforming cooking practices in developing areas. These innovations are improving the health of humans and the planet.

– Kate McGinn
Photo: Flickr

Martinique's Pesticide Poisoning
From 1972 to 1993, Martinique used the pesticide chlordecone in banana plantations to eliminate the weevil, a type of beetle that was infesting the lands. Mainland France banned the use of this extremely toxic pesticide. However, the French government still authorized its use in the French West islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The chemical contaminated over 20,000 hectares of land between both islands. The world finally banned chlordecone production in 2009. However, it was too late to reverse the health damages Martinique’s pesticide poisoning left on the people of Martinique and the environment.

For almost five decades, the people of this island have been dealing with serious public health issues that chlordecone caused. Some of the issues include prostate cancer, nervous system disorders, high rates of premature births and exposure through breast milk. There is no viable decontamination method. In addition, traces of the pesticide will likely remain in the soil for at least 700 years. Martinique’s pesticide poisoning will come under control once the French government provides the funding for research that will allow a deeper understanding of the situation.

The People of Martinique

Ninety-two percent of the citizens on this island have tested positive for chlordecone poisoning. Contamination has reached the water and food supply, livestock and even marine life. This slow poisoning has caused many mothers to have premature babies. As a result, premature births are four times higher than the national average in Martinique. The contamination also affects the island’s men. Martinique has one of the highest prostate cancer rates in the world with 577 new cases reported in 2018.

The pesticide is also affecting the children of Martinique. Nineteen percent of children tested for chlordecone exceeded the toxic dose. Contaminated and breastfeeding mothers are unintentionally poisoning their children through their milk. As the kids grow older, dietary exposure to chlordecone continues. This will increase their chances of developing cancer later on in life.

The Economy of Martinique

Because chlordecone poisoning has reached the waters surrounding Martinique, fishermen are having trouble staying in business. Thirty-three percent of coastal waters surrounding the island has a ban on fishing to prevent more citizens from eating poisoned food. Although this ban has kept the citizens safe, many families who rely on fishing to make a living are now struggling financially. The French government is providing some aid to these families. However, reports indicate that only 50 out of 506 fishermen received any aid. Depression and suicide are common within the fishing communities in Martinique.

Chemical contamination is also hurting the island’s exports. Martinique can no longer export much of the foods grown on the island to mainland France due to its lack of safety. This has not only hurt the economy but has also caused an uproar and a call for justice for the people of Martinique. France has banned the contaminated food. However, many in Martinique only have contaminated food. Many of the island’s citizens find this unfair. People started protests and campaigns in an attempt to get the attention of the French government. In September 2019, the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, made a pledge to increase the budget for food controls of contaminated lands.

The Solutions for Martinique’s Pesticide Poisoning

Despite the lack of action by the French government, the farmers of Martinique have started to search for alternative solutions. Many of them are starting to grow their crops above land by using trees. Chlordecone is unable to travel through tree trunks which means that any crop that grows through trees will be chlordecone free. Lab testing has confirmed the lack of the toxic chemical in their crops. They are able to provide the people of Martinique with safe foods.

Along with growing food above land, farmers have started using alternative substances such as aldicarb, isophenphos, phenamiphos, cadusaphos and terbuphos which has stopped further spread of the toxic pesticide.

Despite these solutions, one of the biggest ways that the French government can help the people of Martinique is by providing the funding for research that will help them better understand chlordecone’s movement through the soil and water. Without this research, providing successful solutions will be impossible, and the people of Martinique will continue to suffer. Along with this, the government should also implement education to the population on how they can minimize their exposure to the toxic pesticide. Because the French government has ignored this issue for so long, the lack of understanding over how the pesticide threatens the environment and human health is unsettling and gaining knowledge should be the first step in solving Martinique’s pesticide poisoning. The French government has the funding and power to give the people of Martinique the quality of life they deserve.

– Jannette Aguirre
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

FeelGood Grilled CheeseFeelGood grilled cheese stations have been popping up all over the country, from UCLA to Boston University and 23 other chapters across the United States and Canada. On Tuesday nights from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. in the Warren Towers Late Nite Café at Boston University, FeelGood’s grilled cheese deli comes alive. This station has been a staple at the university for years, selling grilled cheese sandwiches for $6.50. FeelGood is a non-profit social enterprise run completely by students that deliver 100 percent of its proceeds to charitable organizations that work to combat extreme poverty and hunger. Since its inception in 2005, FeelGood has raised $1.96 million for global poverty reduction efforts across 25 chapters.

FeelGood is devoted to the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030 with the help of over 1,500 volunteers. Aisha White is one of those volunteers. As a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, White received a flyer regarding a meeting about grilled cheese, “I love food and I love volunteering, so it seemed like a good fit. Like most students who attend their first meeting, I was drawn in by the grilled cheese—but stayed for the community of people who not only cared about ending global poverty but were dedicated to ending it in our lifetime.”

The FeelGood grilled cheese system operates on three levels, the first is raising money. Originally, selling sandwiches was an easy way for FeelGood founders Kristin Walter and Talis Apud-Hendricks to raise money for their favorite non-profit organizations. Today, chapters raise between $15,000 to $30,000 a year and every cent goes to the Commitment 2030 Fund, a group of organizations whose initiative is to eliminate global poverty by the year 2030 in a sustainable manner. These organizations include the Pachamama Alliance, Water for People, The Hunger Project and Choice Humanitarian.

The second level of operations is conversation. FeelGood provides anyone who visits a grilled cheese shop the opportunity to engage in a dialogue on global hunger and poverty. President of the Boston University Chapter Abigail Mack says FeelGood is “an interesting way to get people involved and to take something really simple like cheese and bread and then turn it into a really big impact to make a difference.” This leads to the third level, empowering youth. For more than a decade, FeelGood grilled cheese delis have displayed a proven means of empowering students with the opportunity to run a business and work towards ending global poverty by 2030. Anna Yum, Vice President of the BU chapter, says, “We’re not just asking for money, we’re also creating a business model.”

Students can get involved by joining a chapter or starting one if their university does not have an existing chapter. As a low-effort way to get involved, any student can visit a local chapter or event to make a donation by purchasing a grilled cheese sandwich.

– Adam Bentz
Photo: Flickr

Eight Facts About Education in the United Kingdom
When thinking about education in the United Kingdom, it is almost impossible not to consider Oxford and Cambridge. These two-century-old bastions of higher education in England garner recognition throughout the world and lend themselves to an image of British superiority in education. Rightfully so, they sit atop the education system but facilitate the overlooking of the rest of it. When looking further down the hierarchy, imperfections emerge, bordering on a crisis. Despite its image of a wealthy, developed nation, 4.5 million children live below the poverty line, comprising 33 percent of the country’s demographic. With such a substantial proportion of students struggling to feed and clothe themselves, poverty takes a profound toll on British education. Here are eight facts about education in the United Kingdom that illustrate the crisis.

 8 Facts About Education in the United Kingdom

  1. Poverty and Education: As a testament to how staggeringly poverty affects the classroom, 87 percent of teachers and other staff claim that it has a significant impact on learning, according to a survey that the National Education Union and Child Poverty Action Group conducted. Six out of 10 respondents in this survey said that the situation had worsened since 2015. Surveys such as these demonstrate the shift in focus from children’s learning and development to their fundamental well being.
  2. Food Banks: To combat this growing issue, many schools in the U.K. host food banks to feed students and their families. About 8 percent of schools operate a food bank on-site, according to the National Governance Association’s survey. In addition to basic food services, many schools feel the need to provide general welfare as well, including emergency loans for parents.
  3. Teachers Provide Care: Teachers themselves bear much of this burden, often balancing their duty to educate with an instinct to care by providing foods such as cereal to students in the middle of lessons. Additionally, some go to the lengths of washing clothes for their pupils and ensuring they have food during holidays. The most compassionate educators dip into their own bank accounts to buy supplies and clothes for the kids that need it most. The CfBT Education Trust started in 1968 as the Center for British Teachers and became a charity in 1976. It generally researches and supports the education sector, often in service of teachers to alleviate these issues.
  4. Attempt to Garner Funding: With funding strapped already, schools worry about their ability to accommodate disadvantaged pupils. Seventy-eight percent of school governors reported a general failure to meet needs due to inadequate funds and 61 percent said that they could not extend support to disadvantaged students. Compelled to help these children, many lobby for additional funding that they doubt will come.
  5. Sure Start Centers: Record unemployment, stagnant wages and high inflation place low-income parents in a precarious situation, sometimes choosing between sending sick kids to school and losing a day’s pay to stay at home with them. In 2010, 3,500 Sure Start centers operated throughout the U.K. to mitigate some of the daycare and other early childhood necessities for parents who needed them. Since then, however, 1,000 have closed or have severely restricted services.
  6. Challenges for Students: While parents and teachers face hardships due to the poverty crisis, children ultimately suffer the most. Students ashamed of their lack of supplies or new clothes skip school more frequently out of fear of bullying. This exacerbates their already tired, hungry, angry and confused mindset. Their poverty affects their learning at home just as much as at school, where crowded, noisy homes make homework and regular sleep exceedingly difficult. On top of that, their lack of resources shows more dramatically than at school. Computers, textbooks and other supplies become inaccessible in families that do not work or work hard but can barely afford the basics.
  7. Children’s Mental Health: Due to all of this, low-income children often feel that they fall behind wealthy classmates, and may develop mental health issues as a result. In the short term, one in four feels anxious or worried about their family’s financial situation. In the long term, these children have more than two times the chance of developing more permanent mental health conditions. The Sutton Trust encourages social mobility through education by focusing on efforts to combat educational inequality.
  8. Charities: In addition to those aforementioned, numerous charities combat these conditions. The Nuffield Foundation strives to benefit social welfare through funding education, science and social science research projects. Nesta, formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, originated in 1998 to promote innovation in the U.K. by running practical programs, conducting research and supporting partnerships. The Education Endowment Foundation champions a dedication to the insurance that children from all kinds of backgrounds have access to education, fulfilling their potentials and applying their talents. Lastly, the Wellcome Trust funds biomedical research as well as promoting the public understanding of science.

These eight facts about education in the United Kingdom do not cast a particularly optimistic light, although there are several efforts to improve circumstances. Though the U.K. faces an exceedingly uphill task to address poverty and education in Britain, the charities named in this article do excellent work to assist as many children as they can. While their work is important and provides desperately needed support, ultimately the government’s funding cuts impede systematic progress. The good news is that many candidates across the U.K. recognize the need for more education funding and have promised it ahead of the upcoming December 2019 election.

– Alex Myers
Photo: Flickr

Food Shortages in Tajikistan

Tajikistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia that is home to 9 million people, many of whom have grappled with instability and poverty since its independence in 1992. In fact, half of Tajikistan‘s population lives in poverty today. Furthermore, the country is currently experiencing a food shortage crisis that is exacerbated by a number of factors including a heavy dependence on imported food products as well as inadequate agricultural practices.

Aid from US Initiatives

At least 30 percent of children under the age of five have stunted development. Increasing production in the local agriculture sector is a boost for Tajikistan’s economy, nutrition and general food supply. With equipment and training also provided by USAID, around 16,000 farmers were able to produce higher quality products that increased food security and nutrition. Improving agricultural production is a major step in alleviating the shortages that have plagued the population that currently live below the poverty line as well as helping the local farmers who struggled to make ends meet.

WFP Assistance

The World Food Programme has provided assistance to Tajikistan since 1993 and developed programs that aided people in need. The WFP helped with drafting policies and providing food to over 2,000 schools in rural Tajikistan, allowing over 370,000 students access to regular daily meals. Additional programs alongside the WFP have helped an estimated 119,500 infants under the age of 5 with their nutrition. Assistance is also provided to build new or improve infrastructure to provide security for supplies to rural areas, including additional agriculture production, disaster relief efforts and enrolling children into feeding programs to combat malnutrition. With aid from this program, Tajik children, alongside their parents, gained access to accessible food and medical facilities.

Domestic Poultry Market

Tajikistan’s domestic poultry market has been a major focus on increasing the country’s food security. An investment of expanding domestic poultry farming production in 2015, building new farms and increasing the number of eggs and meat produced for local markets. The poultry industry also got an additional boost in 2018 when the government lowered taxes on imported machinery and tools in 2017 to bolster internal production, though importing poultry still remains as one of the main drivers to meet domestic demand. There are currently 93 farms poultry farms with over 5 million birds currently in the poultry industry. The importance of poultry has on both the economy and the role it plays into combating hunger paves the way to alleviate the food shortages in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan’s effort, normally criticized for being lacking, has expanded upon its agriculture sector with significant investments. Much of Tajikistan’s battle against its internal food shortages have been from foreign aid programs, with various UN members providing the arid country with supplies and equipment to expand internal agriculture and food security alongside Tajikistan’s own national investment to expand them. The efforts have been slowly paying dividends in the Central Asian country, but it still remains a difficult road in alleviating the food shortages in Tajikistan.

Henry Elliott
Photo: Flickr

 

 

U.S. Food Policy
The U.S. produces around 38.7 percent of all corn grown globally and around 35 percent of all soybeans. With such a large stake in global markets, it is not surprising that when U.S. food policy changes occur, many and often poorer places feel their effects throughout the globe.

Over 1 billion people work in world agriculture, and in poorer regions, a majority of the workforce population works in agriculture. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, over 60 percent of the workforce is involved in agriculture. With such a dependence on agriculture, changes in global markets and farming policies can severely affect these poorer populations. U.S. food policy may impact foreign farmers negatively in four principal ways: restricting imports in which developing countries have a comparative advantage; stimulating an overproduction of commodities in the U.S., that when the U.S. exports lowers the international price of goods from which low-income country farmers derive their income; distorting food markets in developing countries by the provision of in-kind food aid; and reducing official development assistance for agricultural and rural development.

Subsidies

Subsidies are a long-standing agricultural policy in the United States. Originating during the Great Depression, farming subsidies are payments and other support that the U.S. federal government gives to certain farmers. Today, the U.S. distributes around $20 billion to farming businesses annually. In 1930, when the stock market crashed, around 25 percent of Americans lived on farms and ranches and the government intended subsidies to help support these smaller family-run farms. Today, the largest 15 percent of farm businesses receive 85 percent of government subsidies that protect them from price fluctuations and unexpected decreased crop production.

Because of the U.S. subsidy system, it is cheaper for U.S. farmers to produce certain crops and thus it is cheaper for many poor nations to import crops such as wheat, barley and corn, instead of buying and growing locally. As one of the world’s largest cotton producers, subsidies can cause severe global price depression. In 2004, Brazil challenged the U.S. cotton subsidies with the support of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO found that U.S. cotton subsidies were responsible for distorted international markets. In winning the dispute, Brazil could impose $830 million in product sanctions and the U.S. paid $300 million to the Brazil Cotton Institute as reparations.

Subsidies are also the main cause of more market distortion for corn, one of the U.S.’s most lucrative crops. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. exports highly subsidized crops that compete with Mexican products. The exported corn contributed to a 413 percent increase in U.S. exports and a 66 percent decline in Mexican producer prices from the 1990s to 2005.

Cargo Preference

Cargo preference is another policy interfering in international relations between the U.S. and its beneficiaries. The Cargo Preference Act of 1954 ensures that ships operated by U.S.-based companies must transport at least 50 percent of overseas-bound food aid. Because of this regulation, 35-40 cents of each dollar spent on food aid goes toward transportation rather than the food itself.

The United States established Cargo Preference to protect U.S.-flag maritime companies and unions from competing for foreign cargo ships. These companies may increase or decrease the cost of transportation. The disparity between foreign-flag and U.S.-flag ships is very costly to the food aid effort. U.S.-flag ships can cost around $100-135 per metric ton while foreign-flag ships cost around $65 per metric ton. By matching foreign pricing, the country could use the $23.8 million that the country that it would have spent on shipping towards feeding the poor.

If the U.S. were to eradicate cargo preference, there would be an additional $300 million to feed another 9.5 million people each year.

Biofuel Mandates

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) emerged with the Energy Policy Act of 2005. This federal policy requires transportation fuel to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel, namely ethanol from corn or soybeans. This policy was to help American farmers and decrease dependency on foreign oil.

The policy has, however, had a negative effect on global food prices. According to the Resources for the Future, estimates determine that the RFS in the U.S. and the E.U.’s own biofuel mandate will increase global food prices by 15 percent by 2022. Because the RFS demands more corn for ethanol production and because the U.S. produces 40 percent of the world’s corn crops, the policy has had a critical impact on global corn markets. An Iowa State University study estimates that the RFS has diverted a third of U.S. corn crops (10.8 percent of the global corn market) towards production of ethanol and biofuel and has caused an increase in global corn prices from 8-34 percent.

Proactive Policy

The U.S. government has taken major steps toward improving the food security of poor nations. While many food policies focus on farmers and exporting goods, the Global Food Security Reauthorization Act (GSRA) targets farmers in developing countries. Signed into law in 2018, the GSRA ensures funding and support for the Feed the Future initiative. Feed the Future works with local agriculture sectors in developing countries to help build up strong farming techniques and give them the tools to ensure their food security. Thanks to Feed the Future, estimates state that 23.4 million people now live above the poverty line and that farmers have generated $12 billion in new agricultural sales from 2011 to 2017.

Due to the size and volume of exported crops and resources, the U.S. food policy has a strong pull on global markets. Developing and poor nations can feel the effects of rising and falling global food prices most keenly. Therefore, it is important for U.S. policymakers to assess the impact of these policies and others like them. Luckily, initiatives like Feed the Future are working hard to help build stable agricultural communities in developing countries. With such size and resources, the U.S. has the power to create positive change in global markets.

– Maya Watanabe
Photo: Flickr

Coffee farms fight world povertyCoffee is the world’s second-favorite drink, only behind water. In the U.S., Americans drink more than 580 million cups of coffee per day. Worldwide, more than three billion cups are consumed per day. To support the world’s love of coffee, many developing countries rely on their coffee-growing industries supported by small farmers. The majority of these small farmers, unfortunately, live in impoverished conditions. With the popularity of coffee and the market, there is a way that coffee farms can fight world poverty.

An Unsustainable Business

Small farmers produce about 80 percent of the global coffee supply. These farmers, known as smallholders, are defined as “owning small-based plots of land on which they grow subsistence crops and one or two cash crops relying almost exclusively on family labor.” An estimated 25 million smallholder farmers produce the world’s coffee supply. Unfortunately, they earn less than 10 percent per pound of the sale value of their coffee. Combined with the added costs of production, this quickly becomes an unprofitable business.

With the current situation being so hard economically, more and more coffee farmers have moved out of the industry. The past couple of years have brought drought and an increase in crop diseases like “coffee rust.” Coffee prices have dropped to a 12 year low.

Not only are farmers unable to support themselves and their families, but there are also a number of other challenges that have pushed them out of the coffee growing business. The environment in which coffee grows best requires a high altitude that is usually in remote and mountainous areas. This limits access to markets and adds the cost of transportation and middlemen. Changing weather conditions and lack of environmentally sustainable practices along with weak management and poor training have led to the inefficiency of coffee production.

In the department of Risaralda in Colombia, lies a small coffee farm known as a “Finca del Café.” Here, there are 10 hectares of land dedicated to the growth of Arabica coffee, a type of coffee that does best in the high altitude. The winding path through the Finca reveals the complex process of coffee growing that takes years of time. The farmer, who learned to grow coffee from his grandparents, expressed the unsustainability of the coffee business in 2019. They had to turn to other sources for revenue such as capitalizing on tourism of the area and building conference buildings.

Is Fair-Trade The Solution?

Despite the current situation of coffee production, the demand for the drink is increasing. If the current trend continues, there is predicted to be a shortage by 2050. In order to help small farmers and the coffee business, many companies are turning to fair-trade. According to the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics, “the promise of the fair-trade movement is that coffee growers in poor nations will receive a higher price for coffee if it is produced in better working conditions with higher wages.”

Unfortunately, no solution is perfect. Fair-trade impacts farmers by artificially raising the sale price of coffee, targetting production and not poverty. Other initiatives that focus on coffee farmers’ operations and management have shown more success. NUCAFE (National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises) works to facilitate services for Ugandan coffee farmers while having them take ownership of their crops. In Colombia, coffee farmers are investing in digital tools to better manage their farms and transactions.

Coffee and Culture

There are many coffee farms in Colombia’s Cafetero region facing these issues. While some are forced to give up coffee due to the lack of profit, others try to maintain the culture of coffee growing. Coffee farms like the aforementioned “Finca del Cafe” make it their purpose to inform others of the coffee-making process and also to bring awareness to the problems modern coffee farmers are facing.

Local coffee is sold all around the region and coffee is a large part of Colombia’s larger society. The problems encountered by coffee producers can ultimately change Colombia’s culture, a country that prides itself on its coffee.

– Margarita Orozco
Photo: Flickr

Significance of Street Food CultureThailand has refreshing somtam, Mumbai, India has bhel puri and South Africa has a snack of bunny chow. What do these diverse dishes all have in common? They are some of the most notable street foods in their respective countries and vital to the daily lives of citizens, demonstrating the significance of street food culture.

Resourceful but innovative, street foods have a long history in many countries around the world. The foods are reflective of local and traditional cultures. Around 2.5 billion people eat street food around the world. It is one of the few things yet to be significantly touched by capitalist influence.

Perceived Risks

Not everyone thinks so positively about street food and its vendors. Some government officials around the world are concerned about food safety, sanitation problems, traffic congestion and taking up physical space. The greatest fear is of diseases caused by food lowering tourism rates.

Though these risks should not be disregarded, there is much more to street food culture that should be recognized by the greater public. In 2006, the International Labour Office did a thorough report of street food vendors in Bangkok, Thailand by interviewing numerous case studies from mobile to fixed vendors. Specifically, with fixed vendors, the report says: “More than 80 percent of vendors reported that their earnings were adequate,” and “88 percent reported to be satisfied with their occupation.”

The significance of street food culture in preserving global communities is evident in the following areas of cultural empowerment, employment opportunities and accessibility.

Cultural Empowerment

A large part of the significance of street food culture is its ability to create a familial network within specific global communities and enhance levels of inclusivity. The liveliness of street food makes streets vibrant and daily routines colorful. It catches the attention of those from every social class which breaks down barriers.

Additionally, the street food industry protects traditional recipes that run through ancestry lines. Food stalls are often owned and handled by a family. This makes the business an opportunity for multiple generations in the present and the future. Current generations are able to learn about where they have come from and where their country is going, culturally and socially.

Employment and Business Opportunities

Since street food stalls are micro-businesses, it is possible for newcomers to create their own stalls with only a small amount of money. They also have the potential to earn back gains in the long run. Cooking or selling food is commonly the first job for many migrants and women, providing real-life opportunities. Vendors also aid the businesses of small farms and markets by buying ingredients from them. The street food industry has offered new positions for employment. Therefore, it has prevented vulnerable social groups from slipping further into poverty.

A city authority report in Tanzania found that the street vending industry employed more than one million people in 2014. Also, in Hanoi, Vietnam, street vending makes up a six percent share of total employment and an 11 percent share of informal total employment, making the vending sector a significant employer.

Street food is considered part of the informal sector of the economy. However, the industry has developed its own self-sufficient economy without outside assistance. The underestimated sales of street food are contributing to the economy of developing countries. This is another aspect of the significance of street food culture.

Food Accessibility

The significance of street food culture also includes improved access to food across countries, including their poor communities. In the 1990s, the United Nations recognized street food as an overlooked method of distributing food to communities. Street food provides sustenance and nutrition to major groups of the population and helps to keep food security stable.

Since the cooks have low operation and maintenance costs, street foods are low in cost. People with very little to no income depend on street foods every day to support themselves and their families.

Nonprofits like InnoAid are supporting the street vending sector. The organization co-created an educational toolkit for street vendors in India that promotes alignment with the National Act of Urban Street Vendors. It includes training materials on hygiene, collaboration and workspace improvements. Adhering to these aspects of the project will add to its sustainability and benefits for vendors. The project has already helped more than 600 vendors through these entrepreneurial activities and is in the process of implementing a large-scale development project.

With support and increased research on the significance of street food culture, assumptions and overall suspicion of the industry can be reduced. Improving the reputation of street foods could help to preserve culturally significant recipes, provide employment opportunities and supply low-cost food options.

-Melina Benjamin

Photo: Flickr