Tackling world hunger by reforming the food system

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Poultry workers process more than eight billion chickens every year, a job that requires standing for hours on end while repeating the same motion up to 20,000 times per shift. Photo: John D. Simmons / The Charlotte Observer

Change is possible. Since 1990 the number of hungry people on earth has fallen by 21 percent. In order to feed the 795 million people who still do not have enough to eat, Oxfam is working toward systemic change. 

During the past several decades the trend around the world—despite recent gains—has been a massive reduction in agricultural investments in developing countries. So, in FY16, Oxfam pushed for greater investment in small farmers as well as for climate reform, fairer food labor practices, and farmer education and outreach.

Cambodia and Vietnam - SRI: Strong returns on investment

In 2015, Oxfam reviewed a decade’s worth of data to assess the impact of our work promoting the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Cambodia and Vietnam. The numbers tell a compelling story. Oxfam’s partners have taught more than 58,000 farmers in Cambodia how to use SRI. Oxfam’s investment of $3.7 million during the past decade has returned $3 for every $1 invested in the program. Results in Vietnam are even more impressive. Collaboration with the agriculture ministry has helped Oxfam reach 800,000 small-scale farmers and through them added $100 million to the rural economy. The agriculture ministry on its own has reached 1.8 million farmers and contributed $286 million to the farming economy through promotion of SRI. Oxfam estimates that over the same 10-year period we have invested $3.5 million in SRI in Vietnam, which has returned $30 for every $1 invested.

Rwanda: Helping entrepreneurs work their way out of poverty

Damien Mbatezimana has big dreams for his cassava leaf-drying company. He wants to make it the leading food-processing factory in Rwanda. And with Oxfam’s help, he may be on his way. Called SHEKINA Enterprises, the factory is part of Oxfam’s enterprise development program, which works with local businesses to create opportunities for small-scale farmers and to empower women economically. The program’s mission is to invest where the potential for social impact is highest—and that’s often where other investors don’t go. Through a mix of loans and grants to small and medium-sized businesses, Oxfam’s goal is to help people work their way out of poverty.

Having developed a reliable market for cassava leaves, which it now sells internationally, SHEKINA has created new jobs, and nearly 2,000 people are benefiting from the business. Many are women farmers who now have a steady buyer for their harvests.

“There was a time when I didn’t have enough money to pay school fees. … When you are a single parent, it is hard,” says a farmer named Madeleine. “Now [that] I have started to sell cassava leaves, my life has changed.” Newly empowered, she doesn’t plan to stop there. Her goal is financial security for her family—a goal that Oxfam is helping small-scale farmers around the world achieve. Together, these farmers are producing the vast majority of the food and agricultural raw materials on which our planet depends.

United States  - Calling on big poultry: Treat workers with respect

The highly lucrative US poultry industry has a dark side: it’s built on the backs of 250,000 workers who endure low pay, high rates of injury, and a climate of fear. In late 2015, Oxfam launched a campaign to mobilize the US public to get industry leaders to make changes. Oxfam stepped up to coordinate a coalition of organizations that had many years’ experience advocating for poultry workers. Our focus was on the four companies that control roughly 60 percent of the US market: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms.

To educate consumers, we released a report and created an interactive website to expose the realities of life for workers on the poultry line. In response, more than 150,000 people signed a petition calling on companies to undertake reforms to ensure better worker treatment. We engaged directly with the top four companies, filing shareholder resolutions and attending annual meetings. We’ve placed numerous op-eds across the country, and dozens of high-profile media outlets have covered the story. We’ve met with members of Congress, White House staff, and experts at OSHA and the USDA.

Among the early indicators of change: Tyson announced pay increases for a third of its workers and a pilot project to improve worker health and safety. Members of Congress signed a letter to OSHA urging action, and OSHA announced a new program to monitor the poultry industry in Southern states, where most of the industry is based.

Global - the climate-food connection

The climate is rapidly changing, and this year has been the hottest on record. For some of us, this means less quality food, fewer food choices, and higher prices. For nearly a billion people already living in poverty, it means more hunger. That’s why Oxfam’s fight against climate change is a crucial piece of our work to build a stronger food system. In December 2015, over 190 countries took a critical step toward a low-carbon future by reaching a historic climate agreement at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21). Oxfam worked to push for higher climate finance levels in the agreement and will continue to put pressure on world leaders to strengthen their commitments and turn them into action so that the world’s poorest people are able to adapt to the changing climate. And that global pressure translates domestically, too. Oxfam advocates for continued US climate leadership after the Paris agreement, and we are working to influence climate policy commitments and ensure that the US follows through on its $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund.

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