World Health Day 2015: Global view of food safety

New data on the harm caused by food borne illnesses underscore the global threats posed by unsafe foods, and the need for coordinated, cross-border action across the entire food supply chain, according to WHO, which next week is dedicating its annual World Health Day to the issue of food safety.

World Health Day will be celebrated on 7 April, with WHO highlighting the challenges and opportunities associated with food safety under the slogan “From farm to plate, make food safe.”

“Food production has been industrialized and its trade and distribution have been globalized,” says WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. “These changes introduce multiple new opportunities for food to become contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemicals.”

Dr Chan adds: “A local food safety problem can rapidly become an international emergency. Investigation of an outbreak of foodborne disease is vastly more complicated when a single plate or package of food contains ingredients from multiple countries.”

Unsafe food can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances, and cause more than 200 diseases – ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. Examples of unsafe food include undercooked foods of animal origin, fruits and vegetables contaminated with faeces, and shellfish containing marine biotoxins.

Today, WHO is issuing the first findings from what is a broader ongoing analysis of the global burden of foodborne diseases. The full results of this research, being undertaken by WHO’s Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG), are expected to be released in October 2015.

Some important results are related to enteric infections caused by viruses, bacteria and protozoa that enter the body by ingestion of contaminated food. The initial FERG figures, from 2010, show that:

  • there were an estimated 582 million cases of 22 different foodborne enteric diseases and 351 000 associated deaths;
  • the enteric disease agents responsible for most deaths were Salmonella Typhi (52 000 deaths), enteropathogenic E. coli (37 000) and norovirus (35 000);
  • the African region recorded the highest disease burden for enteric foodborne disease, followed by South-East Asia;
  • over 40% people suffering from enteric diseases caused by contaminated food were children aged under 5 years.

Unsafe food also poses major economic risks, especially in a globalized world. Germany’s 2011 E.coli outbreak reportedly caused US$ 1.3 billion in losses for farmers and industries and US$ 236 million in emergency aid payments to 22 European Union Member States.

Efforts to prevent such emergencies can be strengthened, however, through development of robust food safety systems that drive collective government and public action to safeguard against chemical or microbial contamination of food. Global and national level measures can be taken, including using international platforms, like the joint WHO-FAO International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), to ensure effective and rapid communication during food safety emergencies.

At the consumer end of the food supply chain, the public plays important roles in promoting food safety, from practising safe food hygiene and learning how to take care when cooking specific foods that may be hazardous (like raw chicken), to reading the labels when buying and preparing food. The WHO Five Keys to Safer Food explain the basic principles that each individual should know all over the world to prevent foodborne diseases.

“It often takes a crisis for the collective consciousness on food safety to be stirred and any serious response to be taken,” says Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses. “The impacts on public health and economies can be great. A sustainable response, therefore, is needed that ensures standards, checks and networks are in place to protect against food safety risks.”

WHO is working to ensure access to adequate, safe, nutritious food for everyone. The Organization supports countries to prevent, detect and respond to foodborne disease outbreaks—in line with the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice covering all the main foods.

Food safety is a cross-cutting issue and shared responsibility that requires participation of non-public health sectors (i.e. agriculture, trade and commerce, environment, tourism) and support of major international and regional agencies and organizations active in the fields of food, emergency aid, and education.

Everyone, everywhere needs safe food, free from microbes, viruses and chemicals. But globalization means the food you are eating today may have come from the other side of the world. This video tells how we all have a role to make food safe – from farm to plate.


Future of Food: A Conversation with Jim Yong Kim & David Chang

People have different ideas about what the future of food will look like, but everyone can agree on what it should deliver: a food system that can feed everyone, every day, everywhere.

The world needs a sustainable food system that will feed a projected 9 billion people by 2050 with nutritious food, provide livelihoods—and also help steward our natural resources.

To make this happen farmers, scientists, consumers, business leaders, food processors, nutritionists, distributors, policymakers and chefs must work together to build a system that feeds everyone and addresses the problems of malnutrition, obesity, hunger, extreme poverty and climate change.

What are the necessary ingredients for a food system that works for all?

Hear from a development banker, a renowned chef, an agricultural expert, a woman farmer, a culinary professional and others about the future of food, and how we can work together to feed the world.

Join the Live Stream April 16!

Date: Thursday, April 16, 2015
Time: 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. ET | 15:00 – 16:00 GMT or convert time
Location: World Bank Group Headquarters, Atrium & Online

Join the conversation with #Food4All and follow @worldbanklive,@momofuku, @themadfeed, @chygovera, and @Gastromotiva

Can giving full land ownership to small holder farmers double world food production?

Around the world, small holder farmers are being forced off their land to make way for corporate agriculture, and it’s justified by the need to ‘feed the world’. But it’s the small farmers that are the most productive, and the more their land is grabbed, the more global hunger increases.

2014 was declared as the International Year of Family Farming, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) released its annual ‘State of Food and Agriculture‘ dedicated to family farming. In the report, FAO says family farmers manage 70-80% of the world’s farmland and produce 80% of the world’s food. On the ground in Kenya, Brazil, China or Spain – rural people are being marginalised, threatened, displaced, beaten and even killed by a variety of powerful actors who want their land.

A recent comprehensive survey by GRAIN, examining data from around the world, finds that while small farmers feed the world, they are doing so with just 24% of the world’s farmland – or 17% , and this meagre share is shrinking fast.

In its report, FAO claims family farms occupy 70 to 80% of the world’s farmland? In the same report, it claims that only 1% of all farms in the world are larger than 50 hectares, and that these few farms control 65% of the world’s farmland, a figure much more in line with GRAIN’s findings.

What then is a ‘family farm’

Confusion seems to stem from the way FAO deal with the concept of family farming, roughly defined as any farm managed by an individual or a household. (They admit there is no precise definition. Various countries, like Mali, have their own.) Does a huge industrial soya bean farm in rural Argentina, whose family owners live in Buenos Aires, count as a ‘family farm’?. What about sprawling Hacienda Luisita, owned by the powerful Cojuanco family in the Philippines and epicentre of the country’s battle for agrarian reform since decades. Is that a family farm?

Taking ownership to determine what is and is not a family farm masks all the inequities, injustices and struggles that peasants and other small scale food producers across the world are mired in. This way, FAO conveniently ignores perhaps the most crucial factor affecting the capacity of small holder farmers to produce food; lack of access to land, and instead focuses its message on how family farmers should innovate and be more productive.

Small farmers are ever more squeezed in

Access to land is shrinking due a range of forces; population pressure, farms are getting divided up amongst family members, and vertiginous expansion of monoculture plantations. In the last 50 years, a staggering 140 million hectares – the size of almost all the farmland in India – has been taken over by four industrial crops: soya bean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane. And this trend is accelerating. In the next few decades, experts predict that the global area planted to oil palm will double, while the soybean area will grow by a third. These crops don’t feed people. They are grown to feed the agro-industrial complex.

Other pressures pushing small food producers off their land include the runaway plague of large-scale land grabs by corporate interests. In the last few years alone, according to the World Bank, some 60 million hectares of fertile farmland have been leased, on a long-term basis, to foreign investors and local elites, mostly in the global South. While some of this is for energy production, a big part of it is to produce food commodities for the global market, instead of family farming.

Small is beautiful – and productive

The paradox, however, and one of the reasons why despite having so little land, small producers are feeding the planet, is that small farms are often more productive than large ones. If the yields achieved by Kenya’s small farmers were matched by the country’s large-scale operations, the country’s agricultural output would double. In Central America, the region’s food production would triple. If Russia’s big farms were as productive as its small ones, output would increase by a factor of six.

Another reason why small farms are the feeding the planet is because they prioritise food production. They tend to focus on local and national markets and their own families. In fact, much of what they produce doesn’t enter into trade statistics – but it does reach those who need it most: the rural and urban poor.

Should current processes of land concentration continue, then no matter how hard-working, efficient and productive they are, small farmers will simply not be able to carry on. The data show that the concentration of farmland in fewer and fewer hands is directly related to the increasing number of people going hungry every day.

According to one UN study, active policies supporting small producers and agro-ecological farming methods could double global food production in a decade and enable small farmers to continue to produce and utilise biodiversity, maintain ecosystems and local economies, while multiplying and strengthening meaningful work opportunities and social cohesion in rural areas.

To double global food production, we must support the small farmers

Experts and development agencies are constantly saying that we need to double food production in the coming decades. To achieve that, they usually recommend a combination of trade and investment liberalization plus new technologies. This ,however only empowers corporate interests and fuels inequality. The real solution is to turn control and resources over to small producers themselves and enact agricultural policies to support them. We need to urgently put land back in the hands of small farmers and make the struggle for genuine and comprehensive agrarian reform central to the fight for better food systems worldwide.

for over 30 years, my family has been farming on this piece of land, producing mainly for household consumption. As our family decreased in size, we now sell of the surplus from bananas, milk, and most recently manure from the cows This year, we will transition the cows to zero grazing to grow more food for sell
for over 30 years, my family has been farming on this piece of land, producing mainly for household consumption. As our family decreased in size, we now sell of the surplus from bananas, milk, and most recently manure from the cows
This year, we will transition the cows to zero grazing to grow more food for sell

Feeding Nine Billion Video 3: What Policies Can Make Our Food System More Sustainable?

Presented by Evan Fraser , the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada


Hello, my name is Evan Fraser and I work at the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada.

As anyone who has followed this video series knows, climate change, population growth, and high energy prices mean that many experts worry farmers will struggle to produce enough food for us all over the next generation.  But there are other ways of looking at the problem.

For instance, huge amounts of data show that the modern food system is extremely wasteful.  Inefficient irrigation means that we squander vast amounts of precious water[1], while many farmers apply more fertilizer than plants can use[2]. These excess nutrients runoff fields and pollute rivers and lakes[3]. What’s worse, Westerners waste about between 30 and 50% of the food that we buy.[4]

Surely if we simply cleaned up our act, we wouldn’t worry so much about the future of our food system, right?

Economists give us a way to think about this problem by talking about “negative externalities”.  Negative externalities[5] are costs of producing food that the market doesn’t account for. For instance, if a farmer doesn’t pay for the water he or she uses, then the value of the water would be “external” to the price consumers pays for the food and hence there would be no incentive for the farmer to conserve this resource.

Similarly, if a farmer pollutes a river,[6] and the price of the food from that farm doesn’t include the price of cleaning up the river, then the cost of pollution is another negative externality.

These hidden costs mean farmers who waste resources or pollute the environment actually do better economically than farmers who steward their land. For instance, if farmers don’t pay for the water they use, then a farmer who uses inefficient irrigation may be able to offer consumers cheaper food than a farmer who spends her or his money investing in more efficient watering systems.

In the 1990s, a group of scientists calculated that externalities like polluted water, damaged habitat, soil erosion and food poisoning imposed £2,343 million of costs on UK society alone in 1996[7]. The British Royal Family was not amused: Prince Charles regularly talks about the future of farming where he argues that “…we need to include in the bottom line the true costs of food production – the true financial costs and the true costs to the Earth”[8].

Many argue that because of negative externalities, policies are needed to ensure that farmers, processors, retailers, and consumers pay the full cost of producing our food.  There are a number of ways of doing this. One way is to pass laws that make farmers pay for the things they use from the environment.  Mostly, this has been tried in irrigated farming systems where countries have experimented with charging farmers more for the water they draw from aquifers or wells. Where these programs have been tried, they generally are quite successful in encouraging conservation.[9]

Another way is by paying farmers for “ecosystem services”, which is a fancy way of saying “the things that the environment gives us.”  For instance, the European Union has policies that pay farmers for maintaining wildlife habitat and biodiversity[10].  This is useful because it creates an incentive for farmers to tolerate wildlife that might otherwise simply be seen as a pest because they disturb crops.

A third approach is to tax pollution or waste.  This may be a particularly useful strategy in terms of getting consumers in the West who throw out a huge amount of the food to become more efficient.[11]  [12]If policies are enacted that make us bear the full price of our food, then it stands to reason that food prices will go up. And if food prices rise it also stands to reason we will throw less out, making the whole global food system more efficient.

But while such approaches may sound ideal, there might be unintended negative consequences.  In particular, policies that force consumers to bear the full cost their food might also cause a rise in food insecurity and malnutrition for those consumers who could not afford to pay more for their food. So while it is vitally important for policy makers to develop strategies to correct negative externalities, such strategies must go hand in hand with other policies to protect the poor from the negative effects of price rises.

But that’s all for now. If you are interested in learning more, you might be keen to check out my recent book Empires of Food.  Also, you can find me on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter where I regularly post about issues relating to global food security. And the website has annotated scripts along with references and our blog.

I hope to see you again, but until then, thanks for watching!

[1] This publication by the USDA outlines some of the major ways in which agriculture is inefficient in its water use. This publication also provides some suggestions for maximizing the efficiency of irrigation. “Inefficient Use of Irrigation Water.” Natural Resources Conservation Service. United States Department of Agriculture, Mar. 2012. Web.

[2] Nitrogen is an essential component of our modern food system. This National Geographic article demonstrates our reliance on the element, as well as the environmental problems that are arising due to over-application of nitrogen fertilizer on farmland.

Charles, Dan. “Fertilized World.” National Geographic Magazine May 2013:

[3] Agriculture can have serious consequences for water systems; some of these threats, and the science behind them, are outlined in this FAO document. “Fertilizers as Water Pollutants.” Corporate Document Repository. FAO, n.d. Web. 15 July 2013:

[4] Our global food system allows for billions of tonnes of food to be wasted, yet hundreds of millions of people go hungry. This report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers identifies some of the major causes of this waste, as well as suggesting possible solutions to the problem. Global Food – Waste Not, Want Not. Rep. Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Jan. 2013. Web. 18 July 2013.

[5] For a longer description of externalities refer to:

GREGORY, D., JOHNSTON, R., PRATT, G., WATTS, M., WHATMORE, S. 2009. Dictionary of Human Geography (5th ed.). West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell. Pp 235-6.

[6] Manure spills from large scale hog operations have been a persistent problem all over the world.  An example of this from around Ontario (where I’m from) is in the Chatham-Kent district, where 4 major problems occurred between  2006 and 2013. Spinoff economic and quality of life impacts are listed here: HENRY, TOM. (2013) Toxic algae could hit third of W. Lake Erie. The Blade.

[7] This academic journal article evaluates the impact of UK agriculture on the health of humans and the environment in the state. You can access the full text at the link provided below.

Pretty, J. N. et al. “An Assessment of the Total External Costs of UK Agriculture.” Agricultural Systems 65.2 (2000): 113-36.

[8] HRH The Prince of Wales is a well-known advocate for environmental protection, and a strong supporter for the development of a sustainable food system. Here, you can read the transcript of a speech he presented at Georgetown University on the subject of sustainable agriculture. Mountbatten-Windsor, Charles.

“A Speech by HRH The Prince of Wales to the Future for Food Conference, Georgetown University, Washington DC.” Future for Food Conference. Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Prince of Whales. 4 May 2011.

[9] In his book, Green Markets, T. Panayotou makes the argument that economic growth can occur without endangering natural systems. Panayotou, Theodore. “Policy Success: Water Pricing in China.” Green Markets: The Economics of Sustainable Development. San Francisco, CA: ICS, 1993. 112-13.

[10] In order to provide for both successful urban growth and a sustainable local food system, the European Union has enacted the a large suite of policies to encourage the preservation of the natural world, why still allowing for economic growth in the farming sector. The Common Agricultural Policy a Partnership between Europe and Farmers. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2012. European Commission, 2012.

[11]  In Canada we can measure food waste as the difference from what we produce, and what we process, distribute and sell. This waste is estimated to be more than 27 billion CND or more than 2% of our GDP, more than what Canadians spent in restaurants (2009), slightly below Canadian agricultural exports (2007), more than Canadian agricultural imports (2007), and greater than the combined GDP of the world’s 32 poorest countries (2009).

For a full discussion see  GOOCH MARTIN, FELFEL ABDEL, MARENICK, NICOLE, 2010. Food Waste in Canada opportunities to increase the competitiveness of Canada’s agri-food sector, while simultaneously improving the environment. Guelph Ont: Value Chain Management Centre, George Morris Centre.…

[12] For a broader international discussion of food waste, refer to Segrè Andrea. 2012. Transforming food waste into a resource. Cambridge, UK: Royal Society of Chemistry.