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Seventh global food security conference addresses present challenges

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Last Tuesday and Wednesday, the McGill Institute for Global Food Security organized its seventh annual conference. Journalists, NGOs, scholars, and students gathered to discuss this year’s theme, Food Security Beyond 2015.

Infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa

The conference opened with a lecture by Professor Stephen McGurk, vice-president of the Program and Partnership Branch for the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).  McGurk drew a parallel between development in South-East Asia and Africa and spoke to the importance of infrastructure for food security.

“Infrastructure allowed [Asia] to grow extremely rapidly at 45 per cent per year over the last 15 years,” he said. “I have increasingly seen things happening in sub-Saharan Africa that are strikingly reminiscent of things that have been happening in East Asia.”

McGurk continued to emphasize the role of research in this type of development.

“We need to have partnerships that focus on […] cutting-edge technologies that combine the best of field and food science with downstream solid business analysis, economics, and sociology,” he said. 

According to McGurk, the biggest challenge regarding food security remains the coordination of research at the international level and its application to supply chains in Africa. McGurk’s approach is to create the conditions so that the solutions emerge from local communities, like those of  Nigeria, where women sell their vegetables at cooperatives.

“The women in Nigeria already recognized the need for cooperatives to sell their vegetables because they need to negotiate with truck drivers and wholesale market operators,” McGurk said. “They also need to start branding their vegetables and processing them into particular products to capture more of the value-added [….] We must build institutions to do this work better in these countries themselves.”

Food insecurity in Canada

The lack of food security among indigenous populations and methods of quantification of food security were also discussed as they applied to a Canadian context.

Treena Delormier, a nutritionist and public health specialist from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, outlined the discrepancies between aboriginal populations and the average Canadian household, pointing at statistics that showed 27 per cent of aboriginal households across Canada experiencing food insecurity as opposed to 12 per cent for non-aboriginal households.

“There is a serious crisis of food insecurity in northern Canada, especially when we are talking about aboriginal populations,” Delormier said, citing a report of the Canadian Council of Academies.

Delormier also argued that the solution must be comprehensive and include indigenous governance, traditions and values.

The social determinants of health—such as income—were discussed in a presentation by Naomi Dachner, research manager in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto.

“Our single best predictor of the problem is household income,” Dachner said. “As household income increases, food insecurity decreases […. This] also includes more general material deprivation and access to credit, savings, shelter costs, and other expenses.”

Food security can impact Canadians in many ways, according to Dachner. The first and foremost is healthcare cost.  Food insecure people tend to have more health issues. 

“When we look at health care utilization and costs in relation to other components, food insecure individuals cost about [two and a half] times what a food secure person would.”

The vast array of topics presented at the conference drew students from different departments and levels of study. Nina Moutairou, a graduate student from the Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, commented on the global scope of the conference.

“I am looking forward to the section on India, Kenya, and Ghana,” she said. “I would like to expand my knowledge on food security in developing countries.  I’ve been here last year and the year before as well, and the conference has always done a good job at addressing these issues.”

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