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Opinion: Food Security & Nutrition

Priorities for Food Safety in Emerging Economies

Russ Webster Russ Webster

In the United States, we buy our food with confidence. We may wash our produce and handle raw chicken carefully, but outside of that, we generally trust that our food is safe, and that it won’t make us sick.

That’s because, given the amount of food we produce and consume, the U.S. food supply is exceptionally safe, thanks to our food safety standards and enforcement systems.

But that’s not the case in much of the world.

In fact, contaminated foods sicken hundreds of thousands of people every day around the globe, contributing to chronic malnutrition, stunting, and even death.

In a global study released in December 2015, the World Health Organization estimated that 600 million people became ill—and 420,000 died—in 2010 because of foodborne illnesses, with the largest impact in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

Moreover, food contamination generates a perfect storm of ill effects, because it not only severely affects human health, but also affects overall socioeconomic development by impeding income that could otherwise be generated by a more robust and lower-risk food industry.

Food value chains are an important driver of job and wealth creation. If food production is safe—and linked soundly to the market place through proper post-harvest handling, processing, and transportation— farmers, businesses and consumers all benefit.

Though the requirements for sound food safety systems are known, the work of implementing these reforms still lies ahead. Governments need stronger political will to create regulatory frameworks to set higher standards, and to establish testing and enforcement mechanisms. Local and international businesses in the food industry must also do more to advocate for these reforms. The result will be better health, and improved markets for goods and services supporting food systems. And, the economic impacts aren’t just local.  Improving food safety in emerging economies would be a global win-win, spurring food security and economic growth in the developing world, but also stimulating global trade and investment.

There is no lack of entrepreneurship in emerging economies, and food markets – though underdeveloped – already engage countless micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises. But, as in any market economy, poor regulation increases investor risk and undermines the value-chain development that could help reduce investor risk, and drive economic growth.

And it is a plain fact that these economic concerns are closely intertwined with humanitarian goals. Establishing food safety systems is urgently needed not just to feed more than 9 billion people globally by 2050, but to ensure that this food is nutritious – and not harmful.

Several forums have been established to promote collaboration on food issues among major businesses, development agencies, universities, industry groups, and consumer advocates. The governing board, for example, of the World Bank-sponsored Global Food Safety Partnership includes groups such as Mars Inc., the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Also, the International Finance Corp., through its Food Safety Advisory Services program, has helped 116 companies globally attract $270 million in investments, and $205 million in increased sales.

But more is needed. We must find ways to more rapidly scale investments that improve food safety in the most vulnerable regions of the world. Not only is this a humanitarian need, but it also is one of the best opportunities to drive economic growth. “Food” is one of the world’s largest employers.

The benefits for stakeholders are clear. Consumers gain better health, leading to more productive lives and greater incomes. Farmers gain a better price for their products. Businesses gain markets for their technologies and services. And governments gain from sustainable increases in economic growth—founded mainly on an expanding small and medium-sized enterprises.

That’s why one or two key stakeholders must take the lead. This is a perfect opportunity for governments and local businesses to come together in a long-term partnership aimed at producing and processing safe foods in all areas of the world.

Along with this shared commitment, international donor agencies and global companies must support the effort by providing the financial backing to fund the new production, processing, transportation and storage technologies necessary to ensure the safety of the global food supply.

There is no down side to this plan of action. It benefits everyone. Food safety is good for consumers, good for humanity, and good for the world’s economies.

And in the end, good food is good business.

Featured photo credit: S.Kilungu (CCAFS)

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