Sunday, 28 February 2010

Food in times of crisis

airdrop of humanitarian aid

Natural disasters do strike. And when they do, man-made infrastructures are not guaranteed to survive. While people can - in some cases - be protected by early warning systems and effective evacuation plans, it is the magnitude of disruption to utilities (water, electricity), transportation and communication infrastructure that will affect the final size of the disaster's cost (in lives and in money).

With two such cases very recent - the earthquakes in Haiti and in Chile - a number of questions come into my mind: how can one, effectively, get food and water to people in need? What kind of food? Should people rely on airdrops or should people/ local authorities maintain a small stockpile of supplies for such cases? One could argue that food (and water) are perishable goods, which makes keeping stocks a - possibly - expensive exercise. But, on the other side, the availability and quality of those elements are essential for the health, welfare and morale of people affected by the disaster.

Interestingly, there is an ongoing project on "Food For Crises: Developing an option for humanitarian aid"; the project is the objective of a joint thesis within the European Masters Degree in Food Studies. The students assigned to the project try to design food "products" suitable for distribution in such crises cases. They are taking into consideration nutritional value and health benefits, health risks (e.g. allergies) and labelling, cultural parameters (e.g., regarding the composition of food), shelf-life and ease of use, suitable packaging to allow for rough handling, etc. 

When it comes such purpose-designed food, cost is an important parameter. The technology to achieve all the objectives mentioned above in a single, tailor-made foodstuff item does exist but it may drive the cost to prohibitive levels. It is essential to employ technologies that are either easy to cheap to implement or technologies that can - in parallel - find wide commercial application, which can help towards a quick lowering of their cost. Fermented foodstuffs with select microorganism strains is an example of a technology easy to implement (although many of the fermented foods we consume on a daily basis are far from ideal to distribute in times of crises). Packaging technologies belong to the second category.

Then, there is the question of nutritional content. Ideally, each consumer group would have their own emergency-food. But in practical terms, I feel that this would be unrealistic. It is not so much the problem of cost but rather the way to manage such supplies, both when designing the shipment of humanitarian aid and when receiving it. Especially in harsh conditions, where the recipients are the people affected directly, the margin for an organised, individual, nutrition-based distribution is next to impossible. 

I am no expert on the issue and, I admit, I have little knowledge on how humanitarian aid missions are designed and implemented. But I believe that revisiting the topic - at least to whatever has to do with the foodstuff part of the equation - may be a productive exercise, possibly indicating cost-effective ways that foods we have now can be made better with regards to any of the parameters that would matter in a disaster situation (shelf-life, nutrition content, cost, ...). To a somewhat similar direction, the EC recently had a call on "Health-value-added food products for population groups at risk of poverty" (KBBE-2010 general call). It would certainly be interesting to see the directions that the people, who will get the project on that topic, will follow!

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