While food systems in the Lao PDR are in their nascent stage, increasing added value to locally-grown produce via industrial in-country processing could improve food security, nutrition, employment and reduce reliance on imported products.
Everyone eats, so everyone is involved in a food system. A food system encompasses all the stages of keeping us well-nourished: growing, harvesting, packing, processing, transforming, marketing, consuming and disposing of remaining food waste.
Strengthened food systems have the potential to pave the way to a future that is sustainable. Improving their sustainability, resilience and inclusiveness is seen as one of the most important levers for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. There are several reasons for according importance to food systems.
Firstly, efficient food systems can ensure that people have access to affordable, nutritious food within a healthy environment. When this is granted, children can grow up to meet their full potential, adults can contribute to the economy, and sick, elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers can all have a good life.
In the Lao PDR, to date, every third child under 5 years is stunted, which is an indication of chronic malnutrition. When malnutrition is a problem and nutritious food is available but not accessible to all, food systems have a significant role to play.
Food systems ensure distribution to those who otherwise would not have access. Campaigns and policies to change food consumption practices are an integral part of a food system, important in the Lao PDR which has a burden of both under- and overnutrition. 44% of children, across all classes of the country, suffer from anemia, a shortfall in healthy red blood cells that can be caused by lack of iron, an important micronutrient.
A policy to mandate food fortification, meaning the addition of essential vitamins and minerals to certain foods, can be a cost-effective way to prevent micronutrient-malnutrition without requiring intense changes in behaviour.
Understanding the importance of good nutrition raises the demand for nutritious food options, which in turn is essential for driving the development of a strong, coherent and dynamic food system providing for improved food security, nutrition and livelihoods.
Secondly, besides improving food and nutrition security, efficient food systems strengthen national economies. They encourage local production and spark community business ideas. When pineapples grown in Sekong find their way to consumers all around the Lao PDR, everyone stands to benefit. Local farmers gain income through sales, and the entire value chain guarantees revenue for the people involved in the process – up until the spiky fruit ends up on a table in the capital Vientiane, and beyond. In addition, the pineapple – having travelled a short distance only – without need of preservation or packaging, will retain its full benefits in taste and nutritional value.
Thirdly, precisely because of their ability to generate cash flow and strengthen national economies, food systems have the potential to counteract inequalities, thus fostering stability and peace. The poorest of society, who are lacking opportunities to improve their livelihoods to buy food, are those most vulnerable to food insecurity. The close connection between food security and peace was underlined a few weeks ago, when the World Food Programme (WFP) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in fighting hunger.
Food systems are being challenged, even in countries where they are highly developed. Climate shocks such as drought, storms and floods are causing damage to the systems that produce our food.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has caused rising unemployment and falling remittances, as well as disrupted trade and supply chains resulting in localized food price increases. Even before the pandemic, an estimated 660,000 people (9.4% of the total population) were threatened by food insecurity in the Lao PDR, according to the Lao Expenditure and Consumption Survey 6. The World Bank estimates that an additional up to 214,000 people may be pushed into poverty due to COVID-19.
What happens to the approximately 200,000 jobless migrant workers who have recently returned from neighbouring countries, and their families, who are now trying to make ends meet without remittances? What happens to the villages and people who received money in exchange for services and goods from them?
The pandemic has pointed again to the importance of local production and in-country food systems. It is also vital that disruptions in local and international trade are minimised.
We have just celebrated World Food Day and National Poverty Eradication Week. Let us take that as a reminder that knowledge about nutritious food and improvements in the food supply chain increase access to food for all, counteract inequalities, foster stability and create a bright future for our children.
Let’s sustain, nourish, & grow together. Our actions are our future.
Source: Lao News Agency