Churches, UN uneasy at upswing in undernourished people, despite hunger fight progress

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett director of the Food and Agriculture Organization Liaison Office in Geneva speaking at the World Council of Churches on Oct. 22, 2019.

The tally of undernourished people is climbing again after decades of worldwide progress in the fight against hunger and the rise is of grave concern for the World Council of Churches, its ecumenical partners and the United Nations.

The WCC Food for Life Campaign, with the support of the Food & Agriculture Organization, and the World Food Program held an interactive panel discussion at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva on Oct. 22, titled "Healthy Diets for a #ZeroHunger World," which was the theme for World Food Day this year.

Also participating were the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition, Food First Information and Action Network, the Jamaican government, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

"We have to reflect on why, amidst plenty and abundance, 26.4 per cent of the world population, amounting to about 2 billion people continue to experience hunger and moderate to severe levels of food insecurity," said WCC deputy general secretary, Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, in a welcome message.


"A similar proportion of people in the world are also consuming contaminated drinking water," said Phiri. "We have to reflect on why we are increasingly trapped in a combination of unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles, leading to obesity and non-communicable diseases."

Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, who began her career as a schoolteacher and went on to become a cabinet minister in Guyana, and is currently the director of the FAO Liaison Office in Geneva, moderated the session.

She noted that a multi-sectoral approach is needed for healthy diets to get to zero hunger with work involving many parties.

She acknowledged the role played by the WCC in social justice, and like Phiri, she noted, "Progress has been uneven."

"Since 2016, hunger is on the increase again. While the rate remains the same at 10.8 percent, the absolute number has grown with over 820 million suffering from this today.

"Conflicts continue to be a major obstacle in our fight against hunger and malnutrition. In 2017 more than half of the chronically food-insecure and malnourished lived in countries affected by conflicts. The conflicts were mostly within states," said Rodrigues-Birkett.

As did other speakers, Phiri observed, "It is evident that unhealthy diets and lifestyles are often not only dependent on the choice of individuals."

She said that poverty, inequity, lack of access to land and resources, conflicts, climate change, compromising food sovereignty and self-determination, are all linked directly to how people access nutritious food and lead healthy lives.

Dr Manoj Kurian, coordinator of the WCC Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, who organized the session , stated " for ensuring healthy diets to end hunger, we have focus on the welfare and wellbeing of each person; keeping people at the center, over and above narrow commercial interests; and always taking care for the planet and its diverse creation, as our God-given home."


The discussion sought to start people thinking about what we eat and what policy decisions to follow to make this a reality in line with the UN's 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Gordana Jerger, director of the World Food Program Geneva Office, said she was grateful to be at the WCC.

"Faith-based organizations are important partners in the field in reaching hungry and vulnerable populations – that is both international faith-based organizations and also the local ones," she noted.

Crisis levels are due basically to conflicts, Jerger said, "but we also have an increased number of natural disasters related to extreme weather events or climate change cases."

Phiri concluded: "We are convinced that the we can journey ahead with success, only if we hold hands and move forward.

"Let us bring the knowledge and experiences, in a coherent and holistic manner, so that all people can realise their right to adequate food and nutrition, a commitment that all nations have already pledged to follow up."

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