Nov. 16, 2007

In symposia, Cornell addresses worsening crisis <br /> in food and health in sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is facing some of the highest mortality rates in the world as a result of disease and starvation, which is why on Nov. 15 Cornell hosted a conference on the African food system, health and nutrition, bringing together researchers and policy analysts to address the issues.

It was preceded on Nov. 13 by a twin event, co-sponsored by Cornell, at the United Nations in New York City. It was one of five events on Africa that Cornell and the United Nations University have jointly planned for 2007-08.

"Universities have a significant ability to address global inequalities, and they will make their greatest contributions by focusing on the development of human capacity," said Cornell President David Skorton, addressing the New York City group.

The Cornell campus event, "African Food System and Its Interaction With Health and Nutrition Symposium," examined why Africa is lagging in efforts to achieve the U.N.'s 1990 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to halve the number of people in the world living with hunger and extreme poverty by 2015. More Africans suffer from these problems today than when the MDG period began in 1990, and the trend continues to worsen, conference organizers stressed.

"Can we achieve the Millennium Development Goals? Yes," said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Cornell's H.E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy. "Will Africa achieve that goal? Not with business as usual."

Solutions will require a multi-pronged approach to reforming food systems at every level, including farmers, decision makers, producers, distributors and suppliers, he added.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest life expectancy in the world at 46 years and the highest mortality rates for children under 5, said Derrill Watson, a Cornell Ph.D. candidate in economics. And, he said, the problems are seriously worsening in 25 percent of African countries, with most other countries on the continent showing little improvement.

Such diseases as malaria, which kills every 30 seconds, are also taking lives, said Onesmo Ole-Moi-Yoi, director of research and partnerships at the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya, and global warming is resulting in more highland areas becoming mosquito infested. Muddy pits left over from making bricks for houses around tea plantations, he said, have been found to be perfect breeding grounds.

"Many of these problems are man-made and therefore can be corrected," he said. Solutions include mosquito larvae control, insecticide-impregnated bed nets, community involvement, affordable anti-malaria medications and new genetic tools to identify carriers of the disease.

Speciosa Wandira, the vice president of Uganda from 1994 to 2003, spoke about women's issues relating to food systems. "I want to raise women above scratching at the earth to play more responsible roles beyond putting food on the table," she said, adding that men will need to take a more active role for the traditional division of labor to change.