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Working to defeat world hunger

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: China, Nutrition

As a teenage girl I didn’t have a complex about how much I was eating. I got on-demand food when I wanted, and fought with my siblings when there was spare food on the table. East London wasn’t the rice bowl of Britain but we had plenty to eat. Millions of people in the world, of course, don’t have access to food. Food is on everyone’s minds most of the time – we wake up and think what to eat or drink before we do anything else. In 2008, when the food crisis became widespread, food was also on the minds of the world’s leaders; food security became a popular slogan – but what does it mean?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, food security means that food is available at all times; that everyone has access to it; that it is nutritionally adequate and acceptable within a given culture. Only when these conditions are met can a population be considered ‘food secure.’

This is what I’ve been learning about since joining our office in China. And there can be no better time to be learning about food. Despite a fall in the price of food on international markets since the highs of mid-2008, access to food is still not guaranteed for millions of poor people across the world. I coordinate the UK-China Action Plan on Food Security – an area of work we share with our partners in other government departments, the research institutes and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.

This week the UK entered into its first bilateral agreement to tackle global hunger with China. On October 19th the Chinese vice-minister for agriculture, Gao Hongbin, Mike Foster from DFID, and Lord Davies of Oldham, from DEFRA, signed the ‘Action Plan on UK-China Cooperation on Food Security.’ Closer cooperation, it is hoped, will place the UK in a strong position to build a dialogue with China on food security in developing countries. The £3.4 million agreement will see the UK facilitating Chinese agricultural expertise to help other developing countries in Africa and Asia facing food insecurity and famine.

Flag of China
Flag of China

The agreement was signed at London’s Portcullis House – a great building which effortlessly fitted into London’s skyline of Victorian Gothic buildings. The week before I was rushing around to find a Chinese flag in London and select a location for a photo-shoot that spells ‘Grow Your Own’ and organic farming and its like. You’d think it would be easy to find a Chinese flag, and not as easy to find an allotment in Westminster! I found St James Allotments (a beautiful sanctuary in the hustle and bustle of the city), but failed to find a flag. Luckily, Ross, my China colleague on the London desk, had sourced two elegant flags on high poles by Monday as if by magic. Ah – the second flag was a British one.

When I joined our Beijing office in April, I was quietly excited about starting a job in a country with such enormous expectations for the 21st century. Henry Luce, the co-founder of Time coined the term ‘American Century’, and he did a fair amount of work to push forward the idea that the 21st Century was Chinese. One hundred years since Luce was born (coincidentally in Tengchow, China), the country remains fascinating to observers.

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  1. Comment by Dharitri posted on

    Great post!

    "Despite a fall in the price of food on international markets since the highs of mid-2008, access to food is still not guaranteed for millions of poor people across the world."

    Very true. It is something that I, as an American, found to be the case when I lived and traveled abroad in poor countries. Of course, poverty and lack of food security exists in pockets of the US, but obviously, the situation is graver in famine-stricken countries.

    I wonder how much of the Chinese population is vulnerable to food security, notwithstanding natural disasters which could affect food supplies and access to it. I'm assuming that it's more marked in the countryside, as well as those who are of low socio-economic status in the big cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing.

  2. Comment by Tom posted on

    Interesting post, Halima. I guess it will be important to maintain the political will for global cooperation on food security now that agricultural commodity prices are well below the highs set in mid-2008.

  3. Comment by Halima Begum posted on

    Hi Dhariti

    Thanks for your comment. Food security is relative as you say - much like poverty. I thought this link to Oxam's work in America on food security is interesting:

    You're spot on about ongoing risks to continuing food security in China. World Food Programme in China has looked into this in detail. At a macro-level China enjoys basic food security. Its production capacity is increasing steadily, but the country will face some challenge in maintaining its goal of food self-sufficiency. China's poorest counties are vulnerable to food security in some cases - and reaching those people at risk of malnutrition is tricky as they're scattered across the poorest and remote areas of the country. In a country the size of China - that is a daunting task!

    Thanks, food security isn't going to go away any time soon - and with the frequency of downturns and crisis, I guess we should be thinking about long-term strategies that help us stay resilient.

  4. Comment by Joe posted on

    Halima, [how] do you and DFID see the concept of Food Sovereignty fitting into your roadmap toward greater food security?

  5. Comment by Halima Begum posted on

    Hi Jo

    Thanks for your email, I am not sure about a roadmap (as there are many ways to achieving food security)

    I'd say we welcome investment in agriculture, and in land. As you probably know already, if done the right way, it can lead to greater food security through creating jobs for poor people in rural areas. DFID shares your concern to see the rights of farmers protected and of course, food sovereignty isn’t just about the rights of farmers, but fishermen/women and pastoralists alike. We have a mutual interest in ensuring such investments do not reduce the overall food security of the developing country in which the investment is taking place, that the environment is not damaged, and that the rights of people who may currently be living on the land are not infringed? It’s not business-as-usual, and we’re looking at food security from an international perspective and what’s happening nationally, locally and, not just through a trade lens. You’ll agree that increasing agricultural productivity needs to be done in a sustainable way.

  6. Comment by James the Legionnaire posted on

    Sorry to drag this back up again, but "acceptable within a given culture", isn't that a bit open? Acceptable in a country with extreme poverty could effectively still mean starving!

  7. Comment by Parikshit posted on

    I fully agree with you Halima, that you are ensuring food for each one of humans, and I like your / dfid's initiatives : creating jobs for villagers in developing countries.

    At macro level, some agencies who are responsible for upkeep and maintenance of Storage facilities of multi-thousand tonnes of food grains are not performing their roles in a responsible manner. Hence, so much of food grains are wasted in rains / rodents, etc.

    Proper movement and Storage of Food Grains should be another area of concern, the world over.

    In my opinion, dfid can play a vital role in "Equality Food Agreement" which shall facilitate flow of food grains from a geographical Storage area having surplus, to the geographical area having famine, irrespective of the international boundaries / price / exchange rate and other fluctuations. I know at this point of time it sounds quite imaginative, but if this becomes reality, dfid's and UN food for all mission becomes reality and the same is maintained by Supply Chain and Procurement professionals like me, for years to come.