Many people reading this have, most likely, never personally experienced real chronic hunger. And, as the author, I will admit neither have I.
I fondly recall my first visit to Cambodia as a tourist. It was a family holiday and we went to Siem Reap. It seems like a lifetime ago, long before I joined the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and while I do recall noticing that some people were poor, I now wonder if I had also realised that some people were undernourished. Back then, I don’t think I had.
When someone is starving it’s quite obvious – the emaciated bodies, the bloated bellies – you can see they are suffering from a famine. But hunger is less visible and it takes on many forms including “hidden hunger” – where a stomach might be full of rice but little else, no micronutrients or minerals essential for a human body such as iron, vitamins or iodine.
When chronic hunger does become visible we can see it in stunted children – the result of a chronic pattern of nutrient deficiency. Parents might realise that their child is not getting the variety, quality and quantity of nutritious food to lead an active and healthy life, but they might not have access or the ability to provide such foods, or they simply don’t know how to do so.
According to FAO’s most recent published data there are still more than 2 million hungry people in Cambodia. In other words, one in every seven people in the Kingdom is undernourished.
So it is encouraging to see that the government of Cambodia is addressing hunger at a policy level. Last year Cambodia launched a National Zero Hunger Challenge, one of the few countries in the Asia-Pacific region to do so.
This week the government, with support and partnership of FAO and the UN system in Cambodia, is taking the next critical step by launching a National Action Plan to achieve the goal of Zero Hunger.
Of course this is still only the beginning. An Action Plan is just that – it’s a plan. And the proof of how well the plan plays out in Cambodia will be judged by reaching that goal of Zero Hunger. The government has set the year 2025 as its target.
But in less than a decade from now, how would we know if we reached zero hunger in Cambodia? Well, the problem of stunting in children would have been eliminated, and there would be access to adequate nutritious food year-round, with food systems that are sustainable, increased evidence of smallholder productivity and incomes and less food loss and food waste.
So how do we get there?
We know that malnutrition is most often caused by inappropriate dietary intake, inappropriate food choices, including inadequate breastfeeding, poor complementary feeding and caring practices, infectious diseases, lack of access to clean water and sanitation and inadequate health services.
We know that in Cambodia many of these barriers exist and they must either be eliminated or overcome if the National Action Plan is to succeed.
From FAO’s perspective, hunger and malnutrition can be addressed through enhancing nutrition-sensitive interventions throughout the entire food system. That means changing the way we farm and fish, improving the way food is transported, the way it’s produced and processed, and the way it’s handled and marketed at the retail and consumer levels.
Promoting nutritionally adequate diets for all, and education to achieve that, is a major objective of FAO, and is vital to the UN’s overall efforts to improve the health and well-being of a country which in turn will foster its social and economic development.
To ensure nutritious food is available, accessible and affordable, we also need to promote its growth closer to home. Rice farming is important, but so too is growing other nutritious crops like fruits and vegetables. Increasing the variety of foods grown locally and putting in place integrated farming systems has proved to be effective in many countries. Promoting and assisting the livestock sector would also help.
This requires a coordinated and integrated approach with health, education, water and sanitation, social protection, transportation and communication sectors all working together toward this common goal.
Cambodia is on the road to zero hunger and has been making progress.
In little more than a generation, the proportion of undernourished Cambodians has decreased from 32 per cent to just over 14 per cent – that’s a drop of nearly 56 per cent. Indeed, Cambodia exceeded the Millennium Development Hunger Goal by reducing the proportion of those in hunger by at least half. That’s a major achievement.
The road to Zero Hunger will be challenging, but if the success of the recent past is any predictor of the years ahead, then the destination is in sight. In the words of our FAO Director-General, José Graziano da Silva: “We can indeed eliminate the scourge of hunger in our lifetime. We must be the Zero Hunger generation.”
Kundhavi Kadiresan is the assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations