Institute Insights: October 2020


Cyclone Amphan, which struck western coastal areas of Bangladesh on May 13, 2020, was a major disaster compounded by the COVID-19 crisis. Oxfam partner Shushilan delivered food, drinking water, and other essentials to many of the people in greatest need.

From the Director

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to demand intensive efforts and adaptations from governments, communities, and families. This is unavoidable since, at this writing, the global death toll is nearly 1.1 million while the search for effective vaccines and treatments continues.

Bread for the World Institute and others focus on the implications of the pandemic on hunger and extreme poverty. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, include ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. As leaders and diplomats discussed during the first virtual session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September, on the 75th anniversary of the institution, COVID-19 has made many of the SDGs much harder to achieve, but that does not mean that anyone should stop trying. Indeed, bringing the pandemic to any manageable level will require countries to honor SDG principles such as strengthening resilience, leaving no one behind, and standing together for nutrition. During UNGA’s Climate Week, the rallying cry was the need to focus urgent attention on climate change as the world responds and recovers from the pandemic.

On the eve of World Food Day (October 16), this issue of Institute Insights discusses climate actions recommended in the 2020 Hunger Report, celebrates the contributions of this year’s World Food Prize Laureate, and offers an update on building social protection systems to better support struggling families during and after the pandemic.

World Food Day is also a reminder that most families in the United States have had to make significant changes in 2020 to continue supporting their families and ensuring their children’s education while staying safe from COVID-19 and slowing its transmission. Economic hardship is the reality for a substantial share of U.S. households, which confront urgent problems such as eviction and hunger.

Before the pandemic, too many families already had experience with the economic constraints that are now widespread. Low-income families have always needed to be resourceful, able to “juggle” the responsibilities of everyday life without enough money to meet the household’s basic needs. In mid-September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released annual data for food security in the United States. According to the report, in December 2019, 10.5 percent of all U.S. households were food insecure—a U.S. government term meaning simply that they sometimes did not have enough money to buy food. While many people may think of the Great Recession as a somewhat distant event, this was the first time the rate of U.S. food insecurity had returned to pre-Great Recession levels. Unfortunately, the improvement was short-lived.

As Bread for the World has reported, hunger in the United States has risen rapidly as a result of COVID-19. The very sudden onset of the pandemic led immediately to hundreds of thousands of layoffs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to respond to economic turndowns, helping families that have been impacted put food on the table. Between February and May 2020, 6.2 million people were added to SNAP’s caseload, the fastest ever increase. During the Great Recession, it took 17 months to add 6.2 million SNAP participants.

Social protection programs such as SNAP are important to all countries facing the COVID-19 pandemic.  Few developing countries have robust, comprehensive social protection programs, but investing in such programs will not only help households that have lost income earners or livelihoods to the pandemic, but will also contribute to stronger, more resilient societies to help meet future challenges—and continue to make progress on the SDGs.

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.

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Climate is a Hunger Issue: Farmers Speak Up from the United States to West Africa

By Karyn Bigelow

Bread for the World joined with organizations around the world to observe Climate Week from September 21--September 27. Typically, civil society organizations schedule activities to coincide with the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session each September in New York. This year, organizations were active in virtual climate action and education.

During that week, Bread for the World Institute held the second installment of a webinar series focused on the 2020 Hunger Report: Better Nutrition, Better Tomorrow. The Institute’s own Todd Post, editor of the Hunger Report, moderated a panel of experts who discussed the challenges to the global food system as farmers continue to adapt to climate change.

Our expert panelists were:

  • Dr. Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg distinguished professor of global food & agriculture policy and ethics, Johns Hopkins University
  • Matt Russell, an Iowa farmer and executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light
  • Huguette Sekpe, program director for CARE International in Benin and Togo

Watch the webinar

One of the conversation’s major themes was the need to approach climate change as a problem-solver.  Matt Russell said that farmers in Iowa may be skeptical of an alarmist approach—“We’re going to burn up! We have to tell everyone!”—because they can see for themselves that it’s not happening right now. Instead, Russell talks about climate change in terms of the growing need to make adjustments to plans. For example, he has noticed that there is an increasingly short window of time to plant a hay crop that will be successful. Scheduling needs to be more precise in this changing environment.

Farmers have always had to make these types of decisions. From Iowa to Togo, they are taking a practical problem-solving approach—and, after all, problem-solving is what it will take to maintain the global food system in the face of climate change. As time goes on, it becomes increasingly urgent to engage key stakeholders such as farmers in conversations and action on the global food system and climate change.

The political will to take the needed actions is a necessity—and, in many ways, a prerequisite—to avert catastrophic levels of climate change in the coming decades. The Trump administration has been following the prescribed steps for the United States to leave the Paris Climate Accord, and the withdrawal is on track to become final on November 4—the day after the U.S. elections. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has rescheduled the COP26 meeting on global climate change, originally scheduled for October 2020, for November 2021 in Bonn, Germany.

Karyn Bigelow is research analyst with Bread for the World Institute.

Soil scientist Dr. Rattan Lal, working here in a field in Haiti, has been chosen as this year's World Food Prize laureate for his "pioneering research on the restoration of soil health in Africa, Asia and Latin America." World Food Prize

Soil: A Humble but Vital Resource to End Hunger and Fight Climate Change

By Todd Post

The World Food Prize honors individuals and organizations who have made exceptional contributions to the global food system and ending hunger. Previous laureates have included scientists, economists, humanitarians, nutritionists, government leaders, and heads of nongovernmental organizations. They include Bread for the World Institute’s own former president, David Beckmann, in 2010.

The 2020 World Food Prize laureate is Dr. Rattan Lal, a soil scientist and the founding director of the Carbon Management & Sequestration Center at The Ohio State University. You don’t need to don a white lab coat to appreciate the importance of soil science in ending hunger. Soil is the key to preserving the biodiversity necessary to feed everyone, and its potential for sequestering carbon is crucial to confronting climate change.

The World Food Prize is presented in October at a ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa, the home of its founder, the agronomist Dr. Norman Borlaug. Borlaug is considered the father of the Green Revolution, advances in agriculture that spurred spectacular increases in staple crop production in the decades following World War II. The Green Revolution saved literally millions of people from dying of starvation. Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

In some ways, the two scientists Dr. Borlaug and Dr. Lal embody a major shift in how we look at agriculture and food systems around the world. After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug for many years was probably the closest thing the anti-hunger field had to a household name. More recently, some revisionist histories have cast him as less than a hero, because the technologies he promoted that produced the Green Revolution also caused environmental damage. Examples include more intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticide and increasing monocropping at the expense of valuing the production of a variety of crops.

I think those criticisms are mostly unfair. During the first half of the twentieth century, famines in China, India, and elsewhere caused tens of millions of starvation deaths. Agricultural experts were concerned that explosive population growth in China and India, in particular, meant that they would not be able to produce enough food to prevent future famines. Environmentalism was a fledgling movement at this time, and less information was available on the impacts of relatively new trends such as the widespread use of pesticides. Climate change, of course, was completely unknown.

But in hindsight, we recognize that industrialized agriculture has contributed to serious problems. Of all the fertile soil on Earth, an estimated one-third is moderately to severely degraded, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Soil erosion is a major food system challenge in the United States. Healthy soils make the foods we eat more nutritious. A carrot or an apple grown in the United States today is less nutritious than it was just a few decades ago, and the same is true of most other plant foods.

As I discussed in the September edition of Institute Insights, food systems contribute up to 37 percent of greenhouse gases, and this share is expected to rise. Sequestering carbon in soil could slow and potentially even reverse climate change. “Soil, by itself, cannot solve the climate problem,” says Lal, “but it has to be part of the solution. The most economic, natural, low-hanging fruit is restoring soil.”

Lal’s recognition as the 2020 World Food Prize laureate is emblematic of how climate change dominates the way we look at agriculture—and all other sectors. The World Food Prize Foundation, the organization founded by Borlaug, is sending an important message to policymakers. As the foundation put it: ”The impact of his research and advocacy on sustainability of agriculture and the environment cannot be overstressed.” We can only urge policymakers to listen.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.

Four-year-old Beamlak rubs her hands with sanitizer. Her mother, Aster Bizago, makes a living by selling vegetables. Aster is worried about both her child’s safety and the decline in she is making amid the increasing spread of the coronavirus in Addis Aba

Building a Better Future with Better Nutrition

By Tanuja Rastogi, ScD

Bread for the World Institute has been working for several years to draw the attention of national and global leaders to the urgency of meeting the fundamental human need for good nutrition. Bread’s 2020 campaign, Better Nutrition, Better Tomorrow, continues efforts to bring hope to millions of vulnerable mothers and their young children.

In a very literal sense, better nutrition today promotes children’s lifelong health and development in ways that enable them to build a better future. This is more important than ever now, with the world nearly eight months into the global COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has already killed more than 1 million people worldwide and devastated the lives of many more. The livelihoods of millions of vulnerable families have vanished, victims of the extensive economic damage caused by the need for quarantine to slow the transmission of the virus.

The focus of much of the global community, including development organizations, the advocacy community, and governments of countries at all income levels, is now on meeting immediate needs while also putting in place better systems to protect vulnerable people in future crises.

As the virus spread globally—shutting down economies, supply chains, and food systems—governments responded by adopting new measures designed to protect their citizens from the worst impacts of the pandemic. According to Ugo Gentilini, Global Lead for Social Assistance at the World Bank, more than 200 countries have introduced new social protection measures in the past six months.

Social protection systems, according to the World Bank, help individuals and families, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, cope with crises and shocks, find jobs, and invest in the health and education of their children. They also protect elders. As Institute director Asma Lateef mentioned earlier in this issue, social protection is critical now to helping households that have lost their source of income or, worse, family members who were income earners.

Many other vulnerable children are not from families that have already been directly affected by COVID-19. The danger they face stems more from quarantines, closures, and economic devastation than from the virus itself. The need for safety net programs for these children is widespread and urgent, and it is likely to continue for the foreseeable future because of the likelihood of on-again, off-again restrictions as the pandemic waxes and wanes.

The pandemic is leading to a projected 10,000 additional deaths among young children per month due to a rise in childhood wasting, a life-threatening form of malnutrition. Lack of access to health care and nutritious foods, in addition to lack of income, is especially harmful. For example, vaccination is particularly important for children at risk of malnutrition because it is far more difficult for malnourished children to fight off diseases considered minor for well-nourished children. But about 70 countries reported moderate to severe disruptions or a total suspension of childhood vaccination services during March and April of 2020.

One model for a successful “nutrition-smart” national safety net programs is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in the United States. WIC is a safeguard against nutritional risk for lower-income mothers and children since it provides resources to purchase nutritious foods. Nearly half of the babies born in the United States benefit from WIC, and it has been shown to improve their health. For more information, see the section on WIC in my Institute colleague Marlysa Gamblin’s report, Applying Racial Equity to U.S. Federal Nutrition Assistance Programs: SNAP, WIC, and Child Nutrition.

Learning from established programs such as WIC can help countries that are seeking to build or strengthen their own nutrition safety net programs. In addition to increasing participants’ access to nutritious foods, it is valuable to provide education and support for breastfeeding and complementary feeding.

USAID’s NOURISH project in Cambodia, funded under Feed the Future and implemented by Save the Children, is a promising success story. At the beginning of the project, levels of childhood stunting were extremely high, in some areas more than 40 percent. The multi-sectoral nutrition project focused on responding to the underlying causes of malnutrition by including a social protection component in the form of a conditional cash payment for women who were pregnant or had a child under 2, since this “1,000 Days” period is the most critical nutrition window for lifelong health and development. After six years, the success of the program was clear. Not only was there a 19 percent reduction in stunting, but the project’s social protection component has been transitioned to government leadership and successfully integrated into Cambodia’s national 1,000 Days safety net.

U.S. leadership on global nutrition over the past 50 years has been unparalleled – saving the lives of millions of children worldwide and improving the lives of many others. Bread activists are urging Congress to sustain this leadership into the future by allocating additional funds for nutrition. Bread for the World Institute also urges USAID to continue to strengthen its focus on better approaches to nutrition, as exemplified in the NOURISH project.

Tanuja Rastogi, ScD, is senior global nutrition policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.

from our Resource Library

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