Niger and Sahel use Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration Increase Yields to Improve Food Security

As described in this recent National Geographic article (see link below), farmers in Niger let cut trees regrow in their fields, leading to improved crop yields from retained soil moisture and fertilization by fallen leaves. Improved crop yields can improve food security.

Over the past 35 years Niger has added at least 200 million new indigenous trees and has re-established woodlands over at least 12 million acres, a bit less than the size of the state of West Virginia.

Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration to Increase Crop Yields, or FMNR, is an old approach that is receiving new attention from local farmers and is effective because it is cheap, it can be scaled easily and it meets individual farmers’ needs.

This FMNR approach can be scaled in the Sahel region and other pastoralist zones throughout Africa and on other continents where rainfall is decreasing.  The US Geological Service has verified these changes.  Click this link for the full story:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/how-farmers-in-earths-least-developed-country-grew-200-million-trees?loggedin=true

USAID Administrator Power discusses food insecurity with colleagues

At a meeting held July 18, 2022, sponsored by the think tank, CSIS, USAID Administrator Samantha Power and a panel of specialists discuss the current global food insecurity crisis, noting how it has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, climate warming, violent conflict, and the interruption of Ukraine food shipments associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in 2022.
Estimates of 276 million additional people have become food insecure globally because of these events, and these conditions are likely to worsen until the Ukraine war ends.   Samantha Power’s speech begins at around the 18 minute mark. 
click on this link for the archived video feed:

Resilience Book Review: Ending Hunger – The Quest to Feed the World without Destroying It

Anthony Warner’s 2022 book “Ending Hunger – the Quest to Feed the World Without Destroying it” (Oneworld Press) attempts to challenge the myths he sees in social discourse in developed countries about how to address world food problems.  Based on his popular blog “the Angry Chef”, he tries to replace pseudoscience with good science, along the way quoting credible scholars including Norman Borlaug.  For instance, he debunks the notion that eating organic foods helps address poverty or protects the environment.   He’s also skeptical of the health arguments for “paleo” diets.

Earlier in the book he retraces human history and the transition from hunter-gathering societies to agriculture, and then on to the green revolution of the 1960s.    Critical to human population growth was the shift to food crops that could be stored between seasons, namely wheat, barley, lentils, potatoes and rice.  He asserts that the reduction in malnutrition and hunger around the world during the past century is one of the most important achievements of humanity.

Ending Hunger looks at both how individual consumption can make a difference as well as how global solutions need to evolve.   Warner recommends that people shift to diets that rely less on animal products.  He believes that Animal product consumption accounts for almost 15% of greenhouse emissions and growing fast, set to double by 2040 by current trends.  He recommends shifting diets toward lentils, pulses, chickpeas and other plant-based foods.   He said that “We have to get away from the social notion that one has to have some meat at the center of every meal, and instead recognize how plant-based products can be delicious.”  Furthermore, he recommends a more open attitude toward genetic modification of foods, which can improve yields and nutrient density.

Warner warns that  current “agriculture is putting a strain upon the air, the land, the water, the soil and every creature on Earth. The production of food has more negative impacts upon the planet than any other human activity.”  Based on this he argues there is a pressing need for change, with government intervention in agriculture systems.  Organic farming, he writes, takes up too much land and there has been too much deforestation.  “On pretty much every single metric of environmental impact, you’re worse off using organic farming,” he writes.

Warner wrote previous books, such as “The Angry Chef:  Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating” 2017.

Interviews with the author can be found online, such as this from July 2022  — https://www.buzzsprout.com/1973717/10843204-will-world-hunger-be-the-next-pandemic?t=0

 

-Reviewed by Steve Hansch

Hunger in Niger

Niger is one of the countries within the Sahel region on the southern border of the great Sahara Desert in West Africa.  Niger rests directly north of Nigeria, and is home to over 24 million people.  As the country enters April which this year is the month of Ramadan, it is sobering to observe the current food security conditions in-country.

Niger is bounded by neighboring countries that suffer from Islamist attacks and recent coups. Niger’s rainy and cropping season runs from roughly May-October, and Niger it entering its lean season.  This is before the annual harvest at the end of the rains, in October/November 2022. An estimated 4.4 million Nigeriens will be food insecure between June-August 2022 (according to the Cadre Harmonise monitoring system) and the number of food insecure individuals is estimated to be roughly double the numbers seen in 2021.  These critical numbers are expected to worsen in the coming months, as the war in Ukraine has already affected world grain supplies, resulting in higher basic food prices within Niger, as well as increases in prices of, fuel and fertilizer which are expected to rise significantly in the coming months.

Malnutrition rates in Niger have not improved significantly in the last ten years and acute malnutrition remains at approximately 10% of children under the age of five.  International aid agencies have been responding, including CARE and Catholic Relief Services which are in the middle of five year food and nutrition programs, funded by USAID, in Maradi and Zinder regions, respectively.  The World Food Programme has piloted vulnerable adolescent girls with folic acid, iron and school meals, with the finding of significantly increased retention and graduation from schools.  The European Union also provides food and humanitarian assistance to Niger.

Niger also hosts over 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees or other uprooted people, and these populations are also food insecure.  Niger’s national cereal production for 2021 of ~3.5 million MT decreased by 40% from the previous 5-year average, food prices for its staples of millet, sorghum and maize have so far all increased by ~15% from the previous 5-year average, and are expected to further increase in the coming months as Niger’s lean season progresses. The food supply, combined with low forage supplies for livestock and continued physical insecurity due to Islamist attacks and threats all paint a very challenging picture for the Niger Government and its international partners to respond to these domestic food and physical security needs.   The nonprofit Action Contre la Faim, or Action Against Hunger in the U.S., provides nutrition, health and water in southwest and southeast Niger.

Compared to its neighbors, Niger is an island of relative stability due to successful elections last year and a relatively lower Islamist threat than the neighboring countries of Mali and Burkina Faso, though conditions can quickly change.  Niger’s continuing food security challenges are similar to hunger challenges throughout the entire Sahel region.  Climate change adds to these continuing challenges, linked to land degradation, water access, lower and inconsistent rainfall, high human fertility rates, and low literacy rates, especially for women.  Niger remains resilient, but this relatively small country and region, a continent away from Ukraine and eastern Europe, show the far-reaching global effects that current conflict will have on both rich and poor countries, especially those that rely on imported food, fuel and fertilizer to mitigate national food insecurity.

Cadre Harmonisehttps://www.ipcinfo.org/ipc-country-analysis/details-map/en/c/1152560/

https://fews.net/west-africa/niger

https://ec.europa.eu/echo/where/africa/niger_en

WFP:  https://www.ennonline.net/attachments/2928/FEX_58_Niger_p2.pdf 

Assistance to Press Freedom can Fight Famine

 “in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press” 

                    – Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate and author of Poverty and Famines

On November 4, 2021  USAID announced new funding in support of a fund for protection of journalists, a step toward improving freedom of the press in poorer countries.  USAID Administrator Samantha Power, who began her career as a journalist, announced that the Biden administration was setting up a Global Defamation Defense Fund in her presentation at Georgetown University.  This initiative follows the precedent set by the UK Government in 2019, when then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt set up the “Global Media Defense Fund” co-funded at the time by Britain and Canada.  This fund is managed by UNESCO (https://en.unesco.org/global-media-defence-fund ) .  Among other things, this fund has been providing local financing to national organizations “supporting investigative journalism that contributes to reduced impunity for crimes against journalists, and enhancing the safety of those conducting this line of work.”

The Georgetown event was co-hosted by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, and referenced at:  https://sfs.georgetown.edu/usaid-administrator-samantha-power-discusses-vision-for-global-development-at-sfs-event/

 

 

Locusts Add to World Hunger in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia 2021

Original Contribution by Sharmin Sultana

Seeing a locust, one cannot imagine that a harmless member of the grasshopper family can become one of the world’s most devastating pests.  Yet, in 2020, within just a few months locust swarms destroyed more than 1.2 million hectares (ha) of crops and pasture in a region where people were already hit by droughts, floods and conflict. In general locusts swarm in different parts of the world.  However, since mid-2019 they have been active across the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa, pushing more than 20 million people at risk of hunger.

Around 23 countries: 9 in East Africa, 11 in North Africa/Middle East and 3 in South Asia have been affected by locusts and face  an unusual threat to food security and livelihoods according to a World Bank report. The UN Sustainable Development Goals list locusts as one of four threats to world food systems.  An adult locust eats roughly 2 grams of food daily. As a result, a large swarm eats enough food for 81 million people, equivalent to 1.8 million metric tons (MTs) of green vegetables.

According to reports by international aid agencies, the most recent locust swarms (2019–2021) caused 356,286 MTs of cereal loss along with wasting 197,163 ha of cropland and 1,350,000 ha of pasture-lands in Ethiopia alone. As a result of this one million Ethiopians required food assistance due specifically to damage from locusts, prior to the start of its civil war in late 2020. Around 20.2 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania faced severe acute food insecurity, exacerbated by these locust infestations.

These locust swarms  formed in the regions of East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent.  According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), these swarms were the worst plague in Kenya in 70 years; in India in 26 years; and in Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years. They spread throughout counties within Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia, Eritrea, India, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Usually, the reason for the quick spread of the swarms from one country to another is wind patterns. In this case, southeast monsoons blew in from the Indian Ocean to Kenya and carried the locust swarms to other countries. Specifically, Cyclone Mekunu in 2018 and the warm weather after heavy rains are thought to be the reasons for this particular outbreak.

Previous locust outbreaks in Africa from 2003-2005 led to an estimated $2.5 billion in crop damage. Depending on the cultivating seasons, they can destroy from 50 to 80% of crops. The potential hunger threat is huge in a region where millions of people are already facing chronic food insecurity. The impacts could threaten livelihoods, savings, and push vulnerable people further into poverty.

Typically, locusts are solitary pests.  However, in special environments, they become gregarious. The serotonin hormone in their brains is responsible for this transformation.  This transformation changes not only their body color and size, but also their behavior.  As a result, they congregate in groups instead of staying solitary.  This is how they enter the swarming phase, where they become migratory, traveling from one place to another and consuming huge amounts of crops on their way.

Locusts thrive after heavy rainfall and an abundance of vegetation.  Locusts breed after rainfall because they need moist soil to lay their eggs and an abundance of food for rapid growth. Even a small swarm of one square kilometer  holds 80 million locusts and eats the equivalent of enough food for 35,000 people in one day.  The swarms in east Africa in 2020 may have included a trillion locusts by some estimates.

Types of Locusts

Different parts of the world have different species of locusts. The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is considered the most dangerous of all migratory pests because of its ability to reproduce quickly and destroy crops, pasture, and fodder.  They are found in more than 65 countries of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Migratory locusts become swarms in Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.  In the 1930s, the High Plains locust was found in the American Midwest but is rare now.  The Rocky Mountain locust was once one of the worst insect pests but it became extinct in 1902.  Thus, North America and Antarctica do not have any locust species. The Senegalese grasshopper and the African rice grasshopper often show locust-like behavior.

History of major infestations

In the last two millennia desert and migratory locusts continued to appear at irregular intervals as outbreaks in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe and destroyed crops and caused famines which led to human migrations

In Kenya, one of the largest swarms was recorded to cover 10,000 square kilometers. According to the Bible and the Koran, humans were victims of  locust swarms that appeared from nowhere to darken the skies. Though the swarming behavior decreased by the 20th century, swarm formations can still be present.

In 1988, swarms originating in North Africa traveled to the Caribbean and South America, and amazingly crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Locusts easily move across countries in a matter of days. They routinely cross the Red Sea, which is a distance of almost 200 miles.

Challenges in control measures

  • Not having enough aircraft to spray appropriate chemicals on the pests.
  • Problems in maintaining supplies of these chemicals and pesticides.
  • Political instability: for instance, ongoing war has made Yemen or Ethiopia increasingly inaccessible to humanitarian assistance, which has slowed down outbreak response; furthermore, Yemen does not have funds for specially trained crews to spray pesticides that kill the insects.
  • Natural disasters make the breeding areas difficult to access.
  • Unpredictability in movement makes it harder to maintain funding, political will, and capacity building initiatives.
  • Lack of coordination in the efforts of neighboring countries.
  • Large logistical requirements to combat an infestation over a vast area; moreover, due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, supply chains have been hampered.

What can aid agencies do in response?

  • Forecasting is the best preparation for future locust swarms. Forecasting weather variations, wind speed and direction, temperature, and humidity can help to determine the movement of locusts and gives farmers time to start spraying early. Also forecasting can predict regions that are likely to suffer from locust plagues in the near future. Tracking locust migration patterns and overseeing regional response efforts are necessary. Using modern technologies including tools such as GPS (global positioning systems), GIS (geographic information systems) and satellite imagery for forecasting and tracking is part of a vital response to this threat.
  • The most effective way to fight outbreaks is using chemical insecticides, which can be distributed using packs on the ground, or by aircraft. However, the substances used can be harmful to the environment and to human health.
  • Biological pesticides are another option. Fungus-based pesticides are thought to be harmful to a much narrower range of species. However, bio-pesticides do not work as quickly as chemical sprays, and this threatens greater crop damage.
  • Drones and electrified metal grids can be used to control locust swarms. Drones can help spray chemicals and provide surveillance. Electric grids can be dragged over fields to generate vibrations in open fields to kill and deflect the insects.
  • Changing agricultural practices may also be effective. Instead of relying on traditional crops like maize and cowpeas, investing in fruit and vegetables can deter locusts. An initiative taken by village irrigation projects of Action Aid Kenya in 2009, in partnership with selected farmers, is one example.
  • Locusts are edible and have been eaten throughout history, and may be consumed as food. Locusts are eaten in the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. In Saudi Arabia, the consumption of locust spikes around Ramadan since those are believed to be healthy. Some popular ways of eating locusts are fried, smoked, or dried. However, the use of pesticides can make them unsafe.

Climate change, sea-level rise, and cyclones can all bring extreme rainfall, which enables locusts to hatch and breed.  For example, in the Arabian Peninsula, a heavy rain produced higher vegetation growth which then triggered locusts. Locusts are also highly adaptive to heat and drought. Deforestation and environmental degradation can also create ideal conditions for more locusts to breed. If we want to save ourselves from locust swarm attacks, we have to pay attention to our environment. Failing to tackle the climate crisis might cause more frequent and devastating locust outbreaks, and may result in more hunger and food insecurity.  Hunger and food insecurity are key barriers to sustainable development. Therefore better control of locust destruction of food crops is essential if we are to achieve the status of Zero Hunger (i.e. the second UN Sustainable Development Goal).

  Sharmin Sultana is a public health communication professional with an MPH in community nutrition.  She has been a USAID fellow and has worked in nutrition, food security and social and behavior change communication projects in Bangladesh.

Documentary Looks Back at Norman Borlaug’s Career

A recent documentary available from the Public Broadcast System (PBS) and WGBH “The Man Who Tried to Feed the World (2020) briefly surveys the motivations and achievements of food researcher, Dr. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his important innovations of better-producing types of crops.  Part of “The American Experience” series it can be viewed online.  Dr. Borlaug’s life serves as a demonstration of what one person can accomplish through their own initiative, combined with creativity and persistence.

The documentary recounts Borlaug’s struggles to focus on genetic variations in wheat crops, from his Rockefeller-foundation funded station in Mexico.  Borlaug, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 95, demonstrated important initiative, following his own passion and insights to try to win the war between growing population sizes and food production, the war over hunger.  His critical success in demonstrating higher-yield crops was achieved around the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

The Green Revolution included tripling of crop yields in Asia where new crop varieties were planted on 82% of land.  These crop varieties leveraged irrigation and fertilizer inputs which have been less available in Africa, where fewer benefits were seen from the new crop varieties.  Overall, between 1960 and 200 developing countries benefited from a general increase of 208% in yields.  In Indonesia, for instance, rice yields, measured as tons per hectare, increased from 1 ton in 1961 to 4 tons in 2018.  In Brazil, average maize (corn) yield increased during that same period from 1.3 to 5.6.

The second half of documentary in a short period attempts to convey some of the environmental criticism of the 1968 “Green Revolution” credited to Borlaug’s initiatives.  What the critics who were quoted do not talk about is what the alternative would have been, nor do they answer whether their implicit message is that it might have been better if Borlaug had done nothing and let tens of millions of people starve.  It is also ironic that Borlaug, a forester by training, believed that increased yields could actually decrease deforestation.  The documentary inaccurately attributes higher yields on rural-to-urban migration trends.  Rural to urban migration had been occurring throughout history and increased when farms became mechanized, but not because yields increased.  The documentary also criticizes Borlaug for the persistence of malnutrition, missing the fact that malnutrition would have been greater in the absence of Borlaug’s efforts.

In Borlaug’s honor, an annual symposium in Iowa about world hunger is held, bringing together experts to discuss world hunger.  The related World Food Prize attempts to further Borlaug’s vision by acknowledging other leaders.

Borlaug’s important work to help stave off famine in the world, while population was doubling, makes for a good topic for classroom discussion.

Many readings (some online) are available that go into greater depth about Borlaug, including Leon Hesser’s biography “The Man Who Fed the World”, 2006 (Durban House Publisher).  Borlaug interviews appear on Youtube, such as a series about the International Rice Research Institute.

A popular best-seller by Charles C Mann  “The Wizard and the Prophet:  Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World” 2018 (Knopf, Penguin) also goes into considerable depth about Borlaug’s research (including fungus-infected flax) and later work with the India Agricultural Research Institute).

Much of the debates today about the challenges of resilience and hunger keep coming back to issues that framed Borlaug’s career and advocacy.

 

by Steven Hansch, WHES Director & Editor

Veterans Day Lessons for Current Livelihood Crisis

Veteran’s Day commemorates the many millions of American soldiers who returned home from wars with uncertainty about their futures and livelihoods.  Veterans have faced an extended transition period as unemployed workers seeking to enter an often transforming economy.  A prime example was at the end of World War II when 11 million young veterans found themselves abruptly without a job, wondering whether they were returning to job prospects or the high unemployment of the Great Depression. Similarly, other countries facing severe Covid-19 cases and lockdowns, from India to Brazil, from Spain to Kenya, may address livelihood collapse, resulting in malnutrition and hunger, through medium-term investments in support to job training and education.

Then – the mid 1940s — as now, the world was being remade with old job categories being replaced by entirely new types of employment in new industries.  Then, as now, policy makers struggled to identify effective measures to re-integrate restless, displaced youth.

While World War II still raged, American leaders crafted in 1944 an effective solution – the GI-Bill – which should be instructive to us today, because of the success of the retraining and higher education programs that it catalyzed.  The 1944 “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944”, more commonly referred to as the GI Bill, ran until 1956 and bolstered the lives of veterans to a large extent through its offering of one year of education for veterans who had served at least 90 days plus additional years of schooling for each year of military service.  Of roughly 15.6 million veterans with eligibility, almost 8 million took advantage of the education and training opportunities, at a cost of $14.5 billion to the government, but yielded decades of high economic growth as America led the world’s economic rebound.

Historian Susanne Mettler found extensive testimonies from veterans about how the education attained from the GI Bill facilitated their employment and livelihoods for decades to come in a major break from history:  “Mid-century men started finding jobs that were not the jobs of their fathers or grandfathers.”

Many other authors have documented how dramatic this leap in advanced education was on American culture.  Thousands of leaders were generated from the GI Bill including many who helped launch USAID.  A friend and colleague on the board of an international NGO fighting hunger who benefited and whose father benefited from the GI Bill wrote me that he is “frustrated that today the benefits to the current generation of service men and women is not as generous.  My payback has been to fund a fellowship for veterans who served in combat.”

This gi bill posterfrom 1945same educational and training support should be considered today for those upturned by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Covid-19 did not start the re-shaping of global economics, but it has hastened it. Unemployment increased from 3.5% to almost 15% in the span of a few months due to Covid-19 and is high today in many states, near or above 10% in California, Massachusetts, Illinois, and 15% in Hawaii.  Instead of seeing this period of bankruptcy and displacement from Covid-19 only as a problem, we can think of it as an opportunity to retool America’s youth for a new generation of jobs, only just being envisioned.

Recommended further reading:

Edward Humes “Over Here:  How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream” 2006, Orlando, FL:  Harcourt Publisher

Susanne Mettler “Soldiers to Citizens:  the GI Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation” 2007  Oxford University Press

 

 

A Biblical Surge of Miscommunication

On Language:

In the popular media, including otherwise-intelligent talking heads and world leaders have invented new pretentious, uses for words that have little actual meaning.  Chief among these are:  “surge,” “spike”, “epicenter” and “biblical proportions.”

For example: the head of large United Nations agency has been prolific about how this pandemic might lead to famines and food shortagesof biblical proportions.   The biblical proportion part has subsequently been repeated by many journalists and in headlines.  In fact, this pandemic has certainly led to dramatic increases in malnutrition across the world, associated with the collapse of livelihoods and jobs of income-earners.  But what about this is of proportions that are “biblical?”  The Bible refers to famines and food shortages on a number of occasions, but never defines how many people were malnourished or died.  In other words, there are no proportions described or implied.  The populations in Biblical times numbered in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, much smaller than those affected today (hundreds of millions).  So, if anything, “biblical proportions” under-plays the extent of death and excess malnutrition occuring today.

Many journalists liked to spruce up their reporting by referring to pockets of Covid-19 cases as “epicenters.”   One anchorwoman referred multiple times to parts of New York as the “epicenter of the epicenter.”  Actually, epicenter is not a term defined to say anything about diseases; it is defined for earthquakes where it refers specifically to the source of the release of the quake waves, i.e. the origin.  So it is untrue, misleading and surely unintended for our media to suggest that the current pandemic began and spread outward from Brooklyn or the Bronx.  Nor from most of the other places called epicenters in this pandemic.  It would be more useful and accurate to say simply “areas of high caseload.”

The most abused terms have been spike(an abrupt rise followed by a fall) and “surge.”  Spike was used early in the outbreak to refer to any spread of the disease, or increase in cases.   Mostly, it was misleading as the increase in cases was not followed soon after by a decline, but instead by continued, gradual increases.   Because the word “spike” may have sounded mathematical, it allowed those reporting to sound dramatic while avoiding saying anything specific about the extent of increase, or the rate of spread.  Better to just say “increase.”

“Surge has been used the most consistently, at times interchangeably with spike but, now, much more often.   “Surge” has grown in use in 2020 to serve as the all-purpose noun, verb and adjective for Covid-19.  In almost all instances it is undefined, without meaning and another way to avoid reporting anything specific.  Based on the context, surge has displaced terms with clearer meanings such as “increase”, “wave”, introduction into a new area, “outbreak”, “plateau,” and “cumulative caseload.”  Some people think it means acceleration, others simply “spread.”  In most cases it means nothing more than “the disease continues to spread from person to person”, which, after all, is what communicable diseases do.  When the first few cases hit Washington, DC, in the same short speech, the Mayor used the word “surge” several times but each in a different way to mean:  “any new cases”, the overall curve, the cumulative caseload, an eventual “plateau” and a growing epidemic.  As another example:  on August 2, the New York Times ran a headline that “Britain had Europe’s Worst Surge in Deaths.”  The article used surge to mean several things at once:  the cumulative deaths over many months, the extent of geographic spread, and the duration of the outbreak.   Where “surge” sometimes means nothing more than “increase”, it is also now referring to everything else that happens including  to the sum total of the disease’s effects.

The word surge has historic usage connoting a “wave.”  But consistently talking about Covid-19 spread as a wave distracts from the reality that it moves from a single person to another single person at a time.  It does not drop from the sky in one big wave onto a lot of people at once.

We do have simple yet specific terms that journalists have become too lazy to use, such as “spread,” “increase”, “caseload”, “outbreak”, and others which public health scientists have used for decades and continue to use.  What epidemiologists care about is the rate of person-to-person spread, one measure of which is R nought (R0), also known as the Reproduction Number, which can vary from town to town and from week to week but which tells us how quickly a disease is spreading.  When R0 is much higher than 1, the spread is geometric (predicted by an exponential equation).  When it is below 1 for an area, the outbreak is declining.

Early in the outbreak, pundits liked to talk about flattening the curve”, with accompanying pictures of a simple curve.  The valid point they wanted to make was the importance of slowing the spread of the disease as much as possible so health systems could catch up.  But it was misleading to the public to imply that there was a simple up-and-down curve to the whole epidemic.   In early 2020 we were unsure the extent to which the pattern of the Covid-19 pandemic would have seasonal ebbs or increases, orwhether it could be readily contained, or other patterns.  We misled at that time in pretending that it would be a simple curve.  We know now that the curve can be very complicated, with distinct waves and peaks.

The global health crisis underway can be a good teaching moment for us all to learn more about humanitarian crises and the science associated with them.  Journalists should up their game in learning to use more precise language.

 

      Steve Hansch is an editor and board member of WHES.

Peter Morris, Nutritionist and Long-term USAID Expert Leads WHES

The editorial staff of World Hunger Education Service recently sat down and interviewed Peter Morris for his insights about progress in international aid, hunger, nutrition and pandemics.  Mr. Morris has served in numerous crises around the world, leading USAID teams, including epidemic response to Ebola in Guinea.  A nutrition expert, he has been involved in critical funding decisions by the US Government for funding new approaches to treating malnutrition in the hardest hit countries.

Question:  We’re doing this interview in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic; what do you think the public should know about how Covid-19 is increasing hunger and malnutrition?

Peter:  I think Covid-19 is increasing malnutrition beyond just when people get sick from the virus. It has disrupted the food systems so much, such as diminished transport of food to markets. People living with a narrow economic margin in countries have to change their strategies of how they use their money.  It’s almost like a famine because of the inability of people to access food.  The World Food Programme is now asking for around $5 billion more for all the places that need food assistance, necessary as COVID-19 is affecting every country.

Q:  While working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), you, like Ron Waldman, dealt with disease outbreaks, both those within conflict and displacements, but not epidemics that were themselves emergencies.  What did you learn about how aid agencies can better prepare for these emergencies and how they should respond?

Peter:  Responding to an outbreak as an emergency has never been in USAID’s wheelhouse.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would send teams out to countries and work with Ministries of Health to recommend epidemiologic approaches for what that country could do.  Examples of this are measles, diphtheria, encephalitis or cholera.  USAID has never responded to an outbreak per se until Ebola took place.  Having said that, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and USAID’s Bureau for Global Health created a management operations center for the H1N1 crisis. However, that outbreak was not as virulent as people thought it might be.  From what we know the optimal way for USAID to deal with outbreaks of pandemic potential is through prediction and prevention.  USAID’s Emerging Infection group created the PREDICT project which is designed to identify outbreaks in advance and to prepare  trainings and provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), etc.  They funded training in countries where people live in close proximity to zoonotic vectors, or where people eat wild-caught meat, or have many small holder poultry and water fowl farms.  USAID worked with local veterinary groups.  But with a country like China, a very large country, our contribution was a “drop in the bucket.”

As we in the Humanitarian Sector looking at it, there are two kinds of outbreaks.  There is the kind where a person has to have direct physical contact for transmission.  There is the other kind where it is airborne.  Covid-19 is a classic case of this second one, where it broke out of a localized area.  If you don’t contain it in the first ten days, it’s too late.  I’m surprised this Covid-19 outbreak occurred so soon.  It’s just fortunate that it wasn’t as virulent as it could have been.

In your experience, what are some of the most effective or pivotal anti-hunger programs you’ve seen?

In my opinion, School feeding has been really successful.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports this.  Where they provide a meal that incentivizes vulnerable children to go to school as well as providing a nutritious meal.  The other programs were providing cash for families to buy food in the market which supports the family “pot” while supporting local food systems.

While working for USAID, what were pivotal issues you were involved in?

I was in charge of the technical assistance for OFDA, which included many sectors.  OFDA originally was focused on natural disasters and, later complex protracted emergencies.  After Ebola, we created a unit to deal with pandemic diseases because we realized we’d have to be in it in a response way.  As a result, OFDA has now set up an operations center team for COVID-19.

 How did you get interested originally in hunger and nutrition issues?

I’m originally from Detroit, where my initial work was in a hematology lab working on sickle cell deficiency diseases (SCD).  We saw a lot of patients with profiles that were similar to young people with severe zinc deficiencies. We wanted to see if zinc deficiency was a contributing factor to the severity of SCD, and if supplemental zinc would help.

I later went to grad school, starting out in biochemistry, which I found interesting.  I joined a lab group who were  looking into trans-fatty acids and as we found a correlation between diet and fat-related cancers.  I did my research on trans-fatty acids and cytochrome p-450, an enzyme system in the liver that hydroxylates compounds to get them out of the body.  As it happens, virtually all naturally occurring fats in food are cis fats and trans fats only occur when you process foods to allow them to be more solid at room temperature.  If you eat a lot of processed foods, then the idea was they become incorporated into your cell membranes and change the fluidity of the membrane and perhaps activity the cytochrome p-450.   Our idea was that if the cytochrome t450 protein is more or less active, and its purpose is to get rid of compounds that could be carcinogens.

Back in 1979 I decided to change my major from strict biochemistry to nutritional biochemistry.  I got a masters and went overseas.

Earlier, when I was in grad school, I was involved in a local church and set up a program to help resettle refugees in the United States.  In this program we sponsored refugees,  most of whom were from Cambodia, Laos, Eritrea and Afghanistan.

I had a cousin working for an NGO in India who said come on over to work when you get out of school.  When the Cambodian family heard I was going to India they gave me a fifty-dollar bill to give to their orphaned grandson on the Thai/Cambodian border.  I heard about the Khao- I- Dang refugee camp of Khmer fleeing from the war between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese into Thailand.

As it happened, I flew to Thailand, found the camp, and actually found the little boy who was living with another family.  When I was in Khao-I-Dang, I was offered a job by CARE International, an American NGO.

I started working for CARE’s supplementary feeding program, which was high-energy milk, and soup kitchens for moms.  In those early days, I relied on the famous UN nutrition guidelines for emergencies booklet by John Seaman and Claude de Ville de Goyet.  I liked everything about the work.  It fit into my world view and faith about helping people.

I met my now wife, Margie, there at a nutrition meeting.  We were married in 1984 and in 1985 we went to Agadez, Niger to work in Red Cross drought feeding centers with Tuareg people.

Later, in 1994 I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – Congo (then Zaire), as their refugee nutrition coordinator for UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where we did sampling in all of the camps.  Then I moved to Washington DC and started working for USAID.

 Over the course of your career do you see progress made in reducing malnutrition and hunger?

I see progress in understanding malnutrition better, and in improving the methods to treat malnutrition.  For example: the transition from many years of our promoting the use of “high energy milk”, made in a big oil drum with dried milk, oil, sugar, water and vitamins, to the pre-packaged F-75 and F-100 milk formula was important, and then the transition to “Ready to Use Therapeutic Food” (RUTF) along with innovations such as The Community-Based Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) was a great improvement over high energy milk and therapeutic feeding centers in emergencies.  I feel we are a bit like firefighters keeping a growing blaze at bay.  Yes, methods and practices have improved, but populations have increased, and disparities have increased, and resources and food security have been shrinking for much of the world’s populations.

In what ways have you witnessed the United States Government (USG) demonstrating distinctive leadership in addressing food shortages and hunger around the world?   

USAID, during Andrew Natsios time as its administrator, began looking at using cash as an alternative to in-kind food aid – I saw this personally in Afghanistan, when I was involved in assessing the food crisis.

I am very proud of the role the USG has played in providing leadership in both food security and nutrition.  USAID was leading the research funding for CMAM use and micro-nutrient fortification.  Now CMAM is Standard Operating Procedure for malnutrition since 2001.  CMAM is the marriage of RUTF (a.k.a. Plumpy’Nut) and a development model using positive deviance in a community call the hearth model.

How in your view can the CMAM-type treatment/recovery outreach scale up to reach the 95% of malnourished children who are currently not reached?

USAID funded most of the original research for this.  As the research began showing how well it worked, many of the leading NGOs such as Concern, Save the Children, and Action Contra la Faim began changing all their programs, and this lead the rest of the world to also adopt CMAM as the optimal approach to fighting severe malnutrition.  With CMAM you can have a much larger reach into a community.

Have you seen examples — worth noting/sharing — of Americans, civilians, or American voluntary organizations making important progress in any hunger zones?  (besides what we already discussed), i.e. from your work at OFDA?  

During the beginning of the Somali crisis (early 1990s), in one of the first daring innovations, the late Fred Cuny came up with a very clever system to get food aid into Somalia using private markets.   USAID’s Food for Peace (FFP) and the Africa Bureau have worked effectively with the Government of Ethiopia to create a system of food security safety net programs in Ethiopia which have made a big difference in their seasonal food crises.  In fact, USAID has created a Bureau for Food Security (BFS) –  now called the Resiliency and Food Security Bureau (RFS) – realizing that emergency funding is not the long-term answer – this has been an important step.  The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is working on a simplified protocol for CMAM combining Moderate and Acute Malnutrition protocols to increase the reach make the use of RUTF more sustainable (The jury is still out on this, but I hope that they continue to look at it).

What do you think the public should know about the best ways to combat hunger?  

I believe that if we look at the definition of food security:  a combination of “Access, Utilization, and Availability” – a common thread that facilitates these three aspects is Good Governance (both Public and Private sector).  Good Governance has to work hand in hand with technology (preventing post-harvest loss, better sustainable food production etc. equitable market systems, and intermediate financial institutions), use of good child feeding practices, education on both nutrition and agronomy, and adequate infrastructure (roads, transport) to open markets to people.  To me this means we need an integrated way of addressing hunger.  I am interested in the whole systems approaches that David Nabarro was promoting, who is currently the World Health Organization (WHO) Special Envoy for Covid-19, but previously was the Coordinator for Scaling Up Nutrition. David is now leading an organization called 4SD (Skills, Systems and Synergies for Sustainable Development) which looks at a whole systems approach to development.

Are there particular parts of the world today where hunger or disasters are being missed by the media, but which deserve more of our attention?

Syria, Bangladesh, and Yemen where you have really difficult problems but we’re seeing donor fatigue.  In northern Sahel, you have the whole political issues and vulnerability to droughts, 1975, 1985, and repeating, most recently in 2006.  Now the Sahel has increased conflict with  ISIS, it has effected the food systems.

We don’t know yet all of the effects of global warming.  Where it used to rain it now floods.  Where it used to flood, it now doesn’t rain at all.  Many of the poor in the world are subsistence farmers who live on the margins and can’t afford a crop failure.

What books about hunger or pandemics do you recommend to others?

I recommend people read Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines (1983).  More recently I’ve been reading Michael Osterholm’s “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs”, with Mark Olshaker (2020).

 Now that you are, as of 2020, the new Chairman of the Board of World Hunger Education Service (WHES), what vision or directions do you have for this non-profit?

WHES has a great legacy but it’s not in the forefront of food issues as much as it used to be.  It’s a volunteer Board.  It would be good for us to do something no one has done before.   I think we really want to get a first-hand look at opinion leaders in the world on food security and nutrition and let more people know what they’re doing.

 

Note:   Peter Morris was recently elected Chairman of the Board of World Hunger Education Service, the publisher of this site.

Mr. Morris spent over 23 years with the USAID Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), most of the time as technical lead as well as nutritionist and contingency planner.  He led the technical staff specializing in nutrition, health, water, agriculture, shelter, livestock and evaluation involved in roughly $2 billion/year of humanitarian assistance.  For several years, also, he was seconded by USAID as a director of health HNTS at the World Health Organization.  During the Rwanda crisis of 1994-95 he served as a health officer in Bukavu, DR Congo (then, Zaire) helping to manage refugees.   He earned an MS from the University of Maryland, College Park, and MPS in International Development from Cornell.  Peter and his wife Margie, who also served on the board of the World Hunger Education Service have two sons and a daughter.

* Reference made to two interviews conducted by Mr. Morris with Ron Waldman and David Nabarro:

An Interview with David Nabarro

Pandemics, Crisis and Hunger: An Interview with Dr. Ron Waldman Part 1