10 November 2017
Message at the Asia-Pacific Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Improved Nutrition
Centara Grand Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand
Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn; His Excellency Dr. Yim Chhay Ly, Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia; Chutima Bunyapraphasara, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives of Thailand; His Excellency Sok Silo, Deputy Secretary General of the Council for Agricultural and Rural Development of Cambodia; His Excellency Dr. Sun Jun Mao, Deputy Director General of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Services – China; Dr. Khaled El-Taweel, Chairman of the Committee of Food Security; Kundhavi Kadiresan, Assistant Director-General and FAO Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific; distinguished guests from UN agencies; development partners; academic and research institutions; and fellow workers in government from the different parts of the world: Good morning to all of you!
We are all looking forward to many enlightening words today from Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and others who spoke before me. And I am positive that we will be hearing more meaningful discussions in the next two days.
A gathering such as this signifies that the world’s leaders are serious in eradicating hunger all over the world at the soonest possible time. In a world such as ours and in a time such as this, few of the tragedies that afflict our world deserve our full attention as the hunger that afflicts our peoples.
By almost all accounts, the world today seems to be a much better place to live in compared to 50 or even 100 years ago. Advancements in the field of medicine and healthcare have lengthened the human life span; innovations in transportation and telecommunications have improved the quality of that life span. The Internet has caused the democratization of knowledge, and now, new ideas are circulating much faster and more effectively among the greatest minds of our time. If we look at both social media and the real world, we live in much abundance. Unfortunately, in the midst of plenty, the tragedy of hunger persists.
In my own country, this is also a reality. The Philippines has made some inroads in the fight against hunger in the last 10 years. Biological stunting, as a result of hunger and malnutrition among Filipino children zero to 59 months old, was at 39 percent in 1993, then dropped to 34 percent in 2003. It slid further to 30 percent in 2013, but is now back, unfortunately, at 34 percent. One out of every two children in the poorest one-fifth of Filipino families are afflicted, but the effects are not confined to our poor. One in seven of the richest children are also affected.
Solving the problem of hunger and malnutrition is an urgent matter for our country. You see, in the last few years, we have been hoping that as we step into our demographic window, when more than half of our population would reach their most productive years, we would finally become the newest Asian economic tiger. This demographic window is the same kind that catapulted other Asian economic tigers to the decades of high growth rate they have enjoyed in the past.
But if hunger, malnutrition, and stunting are not eradicated, if not lessened, today, our demographic window will close quickly. A team of economists say this will result in a “lost generation” of Filipino children—and this phenomenon will raise education costs instead of finance them, reduce productivity instead of multiply it, and put the high economic growth rates we have waited for so long, beyond our grasp.
This is why the Philippine government is collaborating with the private sector and development organizations to fight hunger in our country, fully supporting efforts to
achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG2 or Zero Hunger. We also support the agenda set during the Second International Conference on Nutrition, held in Rome in November 2014, which focused on sustainable food systems as the key to promoting healthy diets. With 2016 to 2025 as the Decade of Action on Nutrition, we hope to see more convergence and innovative solutions in fighting hunger, so that our people can finally be free of its deleterious and life-threatening effects.
Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn herself has touched many lives in our country by sponsoring nutrition programs for our school children, particularly in the establishment of school farms, giving hot meals, and milk programs. These programs monitor the children’s health, which is key to its successes. As we all know, what we don’t measure, we cannot improve. These and handwashing facilities and trainings for
children are done in Dakung Patag Elementary School in Surigao Del Norte, Banayon Elementary School in Leyte, Bagong Nayon Elementary School and Isaias Tapales Elementary School in Antipolo in the Luzon islands. In behalf of the Filipino people, I would like to express our gratitude to Your Royal Highness for these programs.
At the Office of the Vice President, we have discovered through our anti-poverty programs that gainful employment and productive livelihood are key to creating sustainable food systems that eradicate poverty. We are trying to replicate the Zero Hunger Program, started by Brazil, that create a convergence of efforts, so that the families suffering from hunger and malnutrition can finally get out of it.
For instance, in many of the rural areas in the Philippines, the irony is that the families that are poorest and most hungry are the families of those that produce food for the nation—our farmers.
Agriculture has not expanded in our country as much as other sectors have, and we are still in the process of fixing this decades-old problem. But we cannot wait for agriculture to grow while our farmers’ children are stunted and malnourished.
So, we decided that the way forward is to raise farmers’ income by asking our Department of Social Welfare and Development to source at least 30 percent of their ingredients for their feeding programs, from the poorest farmers in our areas. There were government programs designed to help farmers, but only those that are members of cooperatives and other farmer organizations can benefit. Unfortunately, these farmers have neither the resources nor the money to pay the fees to build such organizations. To help them, we trained them on setting up their own organization, so that they can access government help.
We have used this model in some rural areas in our country and proved that they work. As farmers’ incomes rose, their quality of living improved, and children get better nutrition. We complemented this with nutrition education for the parents, so that they learn how to choose healthy diets. Slowly, we see our children gaining weight and achieving better health.
We are also pushing for the transformation of farmers into entrepreneurs by promoting agribusiness among our partner local government units. Most farmers live far from the city and are abundant in land and water. Through the development of agribusiness, we are not only promoting livelihoods for the farmers and fisherfolk, but we are also providing them with access to nutritious food. If we are able to teach our farmers and fisherfolk to develop their livelihoods, the excess of their harvest can already be food on their table.
Conflict and terrorism are a major and emerging cause of hunger and malnutrition, and this is true all over the world. We have seen with horror the debilitating hunger in South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Nigeria, and in many other places. How 20 million people can languish in famine and hunger in Africa, when mankind is in its most productive and wealthiest state, is a travesty. Most recently, the siege caused by terrorist groups in Marawi City, a city in the southern part of our country, finally came to a close. The job of rebuilding and reconstructing that beautiful city will have to take into account the re-establishment of sustainable food systems so that the Maranaos will eventually have enough food to eat.
Calamities, poverty, and other causes of hunger are not just the problems of government—they are everyone’s concern. Hunger is a basic human tragedy which will require the effort of everyone on the planet to solve. At a time when innovation and disruption is at its peak, we believe that there is much to hope for. And this symposium is sure to be a great platform for ensuring that all of these ideas bear fruit.
It is my hope that today is not just a day for words, but for action. That the ideas that are given birth through this event are turned into action points and deliverables, and finally, into sustainable systems for healthy diets and nutrition. Food has been around since the beginning of time. It cannot be that difficult to make it accessible for people around the world who need it most.
There are many UN staff and other development workers who are out there, risking life and limb—the only hope for survival of people dying from hunger. We need to support them. We need to put hunger back into global conversations. What use will all the knowledge, technology, and advancement that we have gained so far as a race, if even one of our species die from the most basic requirement of life?
Thank you all for having us today. May we all have fruitful discussions during the entire conference.