The changing face of global food security

Posted on Monday, October 15, 2012

Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez, Director, McGill Institute of Global Food Security. / Photo courtesy of Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez

By Katherine Gombay

Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez had always planned to become a surgeon. But he got sidetracked when one of his professors at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena in Jena, Germany, suggested he might be interested in reading the pathologists’ reports from Maputo, Mozambique that the latter had brought back to Europe with him.

Because Melgar-Quiñonez had grown up in Guatemala, a country divided by a horrific civil war, he had already seen poverty up close. His father, an attorney and university professor, had made sure that his children travelled around the country so that they were well aware of the plight of the poor. But it was as he waded through the reams and reams of paper, noting facts about the age and cause of death of people in Maputo during the 1980s, that Melgar-Quiñonez’s life plans began to change.

What he discovered was that the vast majority of deaths recorded in Mozambique were of children under the age of five. Melgar-Quiñonez was struck by the disparity between these disturbing statistics and those of the city of Jena where he was studying, where records for the same period showed that it was mainly the elderly who died. It was then that he became increasingly interested in the inequalities in nutrition that lay at the heart of the problem.

Since then, Melgar-Quiñonez has pursued the goal of improving global food security with passion and energy through teaching, conference organizing, publications and extensive involvement with international bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and USAID. He has recently arrived in Montreal to take up his position at McGill as Margaret Gilliam Faculty Scholar in Food Security and  as the first Director of the McGill Institute for Global Food Security.

“Food security means much more than just making sure that people have enough to eat,” says Melgar-Quiñonez. “It is about making sure that all people have access to enough food that is safe and has the nutritional qualities so that they can lead healthy and active lives.”

Melgar-Quiñonez notes that while in the past the main problem in terms of food security was hunger; the picture is starting to change. “What we are increasingly seeing, in places like Mexico, North Africa and Brazil is that you can find malnutrition and obesity within the same location simply because people don’t always have access to food that is good for them,” he says. “Instead, they are eating more oils and starches. Go into a small shop anywhere in Latin America and I challenge you to find even a piece of a piece of a fruit or vegetable.”

As growing numbers of countries are faced with these twin burdens of obesity and under-nourishment, governments need ways of gaining a clear understanding of the problem in order to enact policies that will be helpful in their particular situation. The household food security scale that Melgar-Quiñonez was instrumental in developing is a new measurement designed to help policy-makers around the globe grasp the extent and face of food insecurity in each country. This quick test, which is administered at a household level and asks people questions such as whether they have had to skip meals, or reduce serving sizes for children, is currently being piloted by the FAO in a limited number of countries, before a planned rollout in 160 countries around the world next year.

Although Melgar-Quiñonez will be heading up the Institute of Global Food Security, he is well aware that he is far from being the only researcher at McGill who is working in the field. In fact he’s counting on his colleagues’ expertise, and plans to make the Institute a magnet and a mobilizing force for research in food security at all levels. He’s thinking big. With plans for the Institute that range from fostering interdisciplinary research in food security at a local, national and international level, to starting a food security club for undergraduates, with the hopes of eventually setting up programs that will allow them to study abroad and learn about food security issues firsthand in much the way Melgar-Quiñonez did himself.

Melgar-Quiñonez has a lot of work ahead of him shaping the Institute into the hub that he hopes it will become. But he clearly has the knowledge, the connections and the passion to do it. Because Melgar-Quiñonez’s father was killed during the Guatemalan civil war, he never had the chance to see what his son took away with him from his travels around the country, but it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be pleased.

Melgar-Quiñonez will be taking part in the Fifth McGill Conference on Global Food Security. It starts on Tuesday, Oct. 16, World Food Day, and continues until Oct. 18.

For more information on the Global Food Conference, go here.

For more information on theMcGill Institute for Global Food Security, go here.

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