One billion holiday wishes

As a new year dawns, 1 billion people worldwide face difficult challenges. But hundreds of organizations are working tirelessly to help.

Ismail Taxta/Reuters/File
A Somali girl carries her sibling as they wait to collect food relief from the World Food Programme at a settlement in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, last August. Drought and armed conflict have contributed to a famine there. Worldwide, nearly 1 billion people go to bed hungry each night.

The holidays are a time for putting others before yourself. And with the recent announcement that the world’s population has surpassed 7 billion, there are a lot more "others" to consider this year.

Nearly 1 billion people in the world are hungry, for example, while almost the same number are illiterate, making it hard for them to earn a living or move out of poverty.

One billion people – many of them children – have micronutrient deficiencies, decreasing their ability to learn and live productive lives.

 IN PICTURES: Food security in Africa

But there are hundreds and hundreds of organizations working tirelessly in communities at home and abroad to fix these problems.

One billion hungry

Although the number of undernourished people worldwide has decreased since 2009, nearly 1 billion people go to bed hungry each night. This number is unacceptably high. Malnutrition contributes to the death of half a billion children under the age of five every year, and in Africa alone, one child dies every six seconds from hunger.

But organizations such as the World Food Programme are using home-grown school feeding (HGSF) initiatives to alleviate hunger and poverty. HGSF programs in Brazil, India, Thailand, Kenya, and other countries work to connect local producers with schools, helping to provide children with nutritious and fresh food while providing farmers with a stable source of income.

One billion tons of food wasted

Roughly 1.3 billion tons of food – a third of the total food produced for human consumption – is lost or wasted each year. Within the United States, food retailers, services, and households waste approximately 40 million tons of food each year – an amount that has been estimated to be enough to feed the close to 1 billion hungry people.

Thankfully, organizations around the world are working to educate people on the importance of preserving food. In New York City, City Harvest collects surplus food from food providers and distributes it to over 600 shelters and other agencies.

And in West Africa, farmers are using the power of the sun to dehydrate fruits such as mangoes and bananas. Experts estimate that, with nearly all of their moisture removed, the fruits’ nutrients are retained for up to six months, allowing farmers to save the 100,000 tons of mangoes that go to waste each year. 

One billion micronutrient deficient 

Nearly 1 billion people suffer from micro-nutrient deficiencies, including lack of vitamin A, iron, and iodine. Between a quarter of a billion to half a billion children with vitamin A deficiencies become blind every year, and half of these children die within 12 months of losing their sight.

These problems could be fixed by ensuring access to nutritious foods. Organizations such as AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center and the Developing Innovations in School cultivation (Project DISC) have been working to combat this problem.

AVRDC works to expand the vegetable farming sector across sub-Saharan Africa, increasing access to nutrient-rich crops. And in Uganda, Developing Innovations in School Cultivation, Project DISC, educates youths on the importance of agriculture and nutritious diets. Students in the program learn about vegetables and fruits indigenous to their communities, as well as how to process and prepare these foods for consumption.

“If a person doesn’t know how to cook or prepare food,” says Edward Mukiibi, one of the project’s founders, “they don’t know how to eat.” 

One billion overweight 

Lack of access to healthy food does not only result in hunger. More than 1 billion people around the world are overweight. Of these, nearly half are obese. And nearly 43 million children under the age of five were counted as overweight in 2010. Surging international rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and arthritis are being attributed to unhealthy diets, and 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter has urged countries around the world to make firm commitments to improving their food systems. In Mexico, where 19 million are food insecure yet 69.5 percent of the country is overweight or obese, De Schutter has called for a “state of emergency” to tackle the problem. He attributes the hunger-obesity combination to the county’s mono-cropping and export-led agriculture and argues that a change to agricultural policies could tackle these two problems simultaneously. 

One billion illiterate 

More than three quarters of a billion people – 793.1 million adults – are illiterate. Although the number of people unable to read has decreased from 1 billion in 1990, illiteracy prevents millions of people from moving out of poverty.

For farmers, being illiterate can limit access to information such as market prices, weather predictions, or training to improve their production. Yet through the work of a team of researchers known as Scientific Animations Without Borders, illiterate farmers across the world are able to view educational training on how to create natural pesticides or prevent crop damage using solar treatments, using short animated videos accessible on mobile phones.

In India, farmers can receive daily updates via text or voicemail on weather and crop prices through subscription services set up by major telephone companies. Kheti, a system operated by the Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, even allows farmers to take pictures of problems they are having with their crops and send them in for advice. With more than 4.6 billion mobile phone subscriptions globally, projects such as these have the potential to reach and improve the lives of many around the world.

As we gather together this holiday season to reflect on the things most important to us, let us also take the time to remember the billions of others who share our planet. Too many of the world’s neediest people will start the New Year without sufficient food or education. But organizations around the world are finding ways to nourish both people and the planet.

• Holiday offer: To purchase a copy of "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" at a 50 percent discount, please click HERE and enter code SW1150. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

This article first appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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