Aligning Food Security and Food Safety
In late February, 24 World Food Prize laureates penned an open letter asking the Biden administration for help. These internationally recognized and exceptional laureates are known to have — with stacks of proof — advanced the quantity, quality, availability of or access to food through creative interventions within the food system. They also have collectively requested the new administration in the United States come back to the table and reengage to achieve zero hunger by 2030. Among them was GAIN Executive Director Lawrence Haddad, a 2018 laureate himself, who said, "American leadership will be a beacon that helps to light the way, and a catalyst for action that gets us to a world in 2030 where we live within our planetary boundaries, everyone is well-nourished and no one goes to bed hungry."
While they argue for funding to generate more evidence, the laureates go a step further, calling on the U.S. government to galvanize global leadership in food security and build on past achievements by expanding the "highly-successful" Feed the Future Initiative and Innovation Labs. GAIN is leading a pioneering Feed the Future project called EatSafe — Evidence and Action Toward Safe, Nutritious Food.
This collective of the world’s most respected geneticists, soil and plant scientists, economists, veterinarians and medical doctors from the public and private sectors raised the clamor that the food system is dangerously broken and that it is critical that the U.S. takes a lead now to ensure that the future of our food system addresses the humanitarian challenge of feeding the world, through a food system that produces a healthy, safe and sustainable food supply.
The future, they argue, must also include a focus and investment in the safety of the foods. Food safety is not new, but it hasn’t taken a front seat in the food security arena even though it needs to, urgently.
Since 1986, World Food Prize laureates have made their mark across a multitude of food-related scientific disciplines throughout the public and private sectors. They have dedicated their life’s work to agricultural innovation, making the case for various nutrients for human growth and development, focusing on one food as a major part of the solution or technology that will bring foods closer to the hungry. Through their formidable research, they all realize that no matter how abundant, sustainable, cost-effective, resilient or diverse our diets become, if food is not safe, it cannot nourish. In fact, the foods that are essential to improve nutrition can also be the riskiest.
Just how big is the food safety problem? Big enough to warrant its own clarion call. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
- Each year, 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths occur due to foodborne illness.
- Seventy-five percent of all deaths from foodborne illness are in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia.
- The highest per capita burden falls in Africa, which is 27 times higher than that of Europe or North America.
- The World Bank estimates that in Africa, foodborne illnesses cost about $23.5 billion per year due to sickness and loss of life, workplace absences, treatment and impacts on trade.
Each year in early March, we celebrate women around the world. While food safety is vital for everyone, it is especially crucial for women, particularly for pregnant women, their yet-to-be-born babies and children younger than five. Foodborne illness hits pregnant women and young kids the hardest; children under five bear 40 percent of the burden. Pregnant women are at high risk of developing food poisoning because immune system changes in pregnant women place them, their unborn children and their newborns at increased risk of foodborne illness. Some foodborne hazards can cause miscarriage or premature delivery and others can infect the fetus even if the mother does not feel sick. Such is the case with toxoplasmosis, which can lead to blindness and mental disability in infants exposed in utero.
From a health, nutrition and food security perspective, diarrhea worsens malnutrition and malnutrition weakens the body's defenses against diarrhea. Foodborne illness kickstarts a horrible vicious cycle that too many times ends in tragedy. Sadly, pathogens introduced through food disproportionately burdens low-income and vulnerable children and their mothers, who simply do not have the defenses to put up a fight.
The numbers speak for themselves, and there are many areas where we could focus efforts to improve food safety and issue a call for action. For now, we focus on two:
Build domestic food safety governance and oversight: In many low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), the emphasis is slowly changing from food safety of exports to food safety for all. Domestic consumers, especially those who shop at traditional markets, deserve protection at least equal to that of international food companies. Although food safety laws and regulations often exist, they are loosely applied in domestic markets. In many LMIC there is a lack of government surveillance and enforcement, especially in the traditional markets where the vulnerable are sourcing their foods.
Measure the extent of the problem where it is greatest: If you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it, but foodborne illnesses are frequently hidden from sight. It is essential that food safety and public health programs work together to measure baselines and conduct surveillance. We need to know when and where the outbreaks are occurring and why and how big those occurrences are. Food safety is understudied, and some of the only comparable global data we have are from a single, groundbreaking WHO study published in 2015 (from data gathered in 2010).
By conveying two pointed calls for action, we are not under-emphasizing the gargantuan task ahead for food safety. We need capacity — human, laboratory and innovation. The essential infrastructure for safe food is missing in many countries: cold chains, clean water, safe supply chains from farm to market and the overarching goal to inculcate a culture of food safety from government to industry to markets to households is not yet there.
The World Food Prize laureates challenge us to "imagine a world in which everyone is well-nourished and no one goes to bed hungry." Focusing on food safety as a cornerstone of a modernized and responsible food system is essential to meet this challenge.
As we celebrate women, whether we are laureates, friends, acquaintances, colleagues or mothers, we wish our sisters well. We ask that you stay safe and eat safe because, despite the tireless work of researchers, agencies, governments, industry and supply chain actors, if unsafe, your food may not be food at all.