Food for Thought: Reflections from SIGHT’s Global Health Night 2022

By Martina Astorga from the Swedish Insitute for Global Health Transformation

Person planting a rice paddy in Bali. By Boglárka Mázsi on Unsplash.

In November 2022, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and The Swedish Institute for Global Health Transformation (SIGHT) hosted the annual Global Health Night (GHN) on the theme of food security in the context of conflict. Some months on, it would be easy for us to pat ourselves on the back and let the messages of the evening passively sink into a pool of inaction and deferred responsibility. However, the climate crisis will unfortunately not dissipate as quietly, and geopolitical conflicts surge and evolve every day.

As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)’s most recent definition goes, “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Since this access covers economic, social and physical dimensions, food security places a strong emphasis on the agency of individuals and groups. Their agency to make and carry out food choices, ultimately acquiring the food products that will satisfy their dietary needs. However, it also presupposes availability of sufficient quality food products and a food system that is stable and sustainable, to project food security in the long-term. 

Unfortunately, conflict – be it climate extremes, civil unrest or geopolitical conflict – threatens food security at every one of these levels, leaving many at risk of malnutrition and forced to give up essential livelihood assets to meet minimum food needs, pushing those most vulnerable towards a series of exponentiated health risks to disease and infection.  Currently, the FAO and World Food Programme (WFP) warn of 19 hunger hotspots globally, where acute food insecurity is on the rise. As conflict and crises rise and evolve, our current food system is being put to the test and its weak points are becoming exposed.

The situation seems urgent and dire. But while anyone facing a crisis would agree that action and change are necessary, reflection and discussion are crucial to direct this action. At the GHN 2022, governmental and non-governmental stakeholders, researchers and students came together to explore how crises today synergistically threaten food security and leave us with a multifaceted problem that can seem intimidating to tackle. Luckily, the evening’s moderators Helena Nordenstedt, Blanca Paniello Castillo and Emma Bergman Karlsson created a space to bring together national and international experts from leading institutions to break down the problem and direct actions to tackle food insecurity. 

Countries all around the globe are increasingly entering food crises prompted by coexisting drivers, including conflict and the climate crisis. Current director of the Food and Nutrition Division at FAO, Lynette Neufeld, emphasised that we are “well off track to meet food goals in relation both to controlling obesity and underweight”. The narrative around issues of global food insecurity have too often placed responsibility on poverty, consumer choices and food habits. But, in accordance with UNICEF’s Framework on Maternal and Child Nutrition, these are immediate determinants, which are underlined by availability of food products, practices and services. These are out of reach to the consumer themselves and instead are a product of the enabling determinants relating to resources and governance. Perhaps, this is where our focus should lie.

Good governance results in stability, sustainability and effective resource allocation that translates into food security.  Therefore, to identify and describe threats to food security, we need to question the underlying mechanisms of the food system itself: what is it driven by? How do barriers in production, supply chain and transport ultimately affect the ability of consumers to make choices and acquire foods? How do climate extremes, loss of biodiversity or geopolitical conflict affect the availability and distribution of resources? Exploring these questions will ultimately strengthen our food system from the bottom up.

Photo of a man planting seeds. By Ricardo IV Tamayo on Unsplash.

While zooming out will be beneficial to moving towards strengthening the food system, in direct conflict scenarios, preparedness and management of malnutrition also need improvement. Anneli Eriksson, former president of MSF Sweden and current research specialist at Karolinska Institutet, emphasised this issue saying, “malnutrition leaves people vulnerable to death by nine-fold. This is particularly frustrating since malnutrition is treatable and has a fast recovery time, but too often intervention comes too late.”  She demonstrated how one could take any malnutrition framework and superimpose conflict as the utmost enabling determinant affecting food products, services and practices. How? By creating insecurity, displacement, inadequacy of food supplies, reduced access to goods, and loss of labour. This is the reality in 19 of FAO’s hunger hotspots. For example in Ethiopia, where humanitarian access has been restricted by hostility and insecurity in Tigray, Amhara and Afar. This conflict and the lack of humanitarian aid, combined with the most severe drought in recent history, means Ethiopia hosts 20.4 million food insecure people. “We often enter when it’s too late”, Anneli insisted, reacting to starvation when we could be using evidence-based methods to predict, prevent and prepare. 

These challenges are far from new. Some are the product of persisting lobbies in fossil fuel and food industries, as well as agricultural trade policies feeding economic interests rather than nutritional quality. But our current food system is not well-equipped for the uncertainty and vulnerability which are continuously arising. The challenge now is for stakeholders to cooperate in the move to a food system that is more stable and sustainable.

This conversation dominated the panel discussion at the GHN. Mattias Frumerie, head of delegation to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was hopeful of the recognition of the bidirectional impact between climate change and food insecurity at COP27. However, Line Gordon of the Stockholm Resilience Center, was more sceptical, pointing out that neither governmental nor corporate entities have done enough to foster and enact sustainable practices in a food system currently dominated by monocultures. Aside from policy, governance, and corporate entities, Linet Mutisya from the Swedish Organisation of Global Health highlighted that NGOs have a crucial role to foster cooperation, disseminate dietary information and safeguard vulnerable groups. Meaningful youth engagement is also essential in shifting towards more sustainable systems, stressed Omnia El Omrani, Youth Envoy for COP27, and Sofiia Iskrak, president of Karolinska Intitutet’s Students for Sustainable Development. While, food technology and community food programs could also be key to innovatively tackling challenges that come with food insecurity, proposed Joe Llewellyn of KTH Royal Institute of Technology. 

As challenges and tensions between all stakeholders continue, so will threats to the current food system. As director of SIGHT, Peter Friberg conclusively emphasised, the importance of stable institutions and quality governance is fundamental to protect against inequities and to implement policy that will ultimately protect our so-called nutritional rights. With that, guests of the 2022 Global Health Night scurried out the doors of the The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to head home and plan their dinners – hopefully dedicating an extra thought to how that food made its way to their plates.

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