This year, World Health Day on April 7th is dedicated to improving food safety from the farm to the plate. This is a timely reminder that food safety is a global public health issue: Foodborne disease causes suffering, death, reduced productivity, loss of wages, decreased trade competitiveness and access to markets and ultimately exacerbate poverty.
Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances is the root cause of more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhea to cancers. Foodborne and waterborne diseases kill an estimated 1.5 million people annually, including many children under the age of 5.
Spring is finally here, and for many of us cherry blossoms and crocuses mean gearing up for the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings. On my team, External and Corporate Relations, we start preparing months in advance: videos and podcasts to produce, blogs and reports to write, global media interviews, social media promotions, campaigns, and much coordination and organization. Constant calendar revisions, anyone?
Over the past three decades, China has successfully lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty. For many years, the government’s poverty alleviation strategy focused on ensuring that every person had access to enough food. Driven by rapid economic development and urbanization, China is today one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of agricultural products.
Now the Chinese government has turned its attention to making the country’s food supply safer. The issue has become so important that, in the words of President Xi Jinping: “Whether we can provide a satisfying solution on food safety to the people is an important test on our capacity of governance.”
According to a poll published in March 2015, more than 77 percent of respondents ranked food safety as the most important quality of life issue. Environmental pollution, which experts consider one of the causes of China’s food safety problems, was another top issue worrying the public.
Chinese people attach significant importance to food, beyond its nutritional characteristics, due to historic memories of starvation. Food is also a symbol of regional pride and distinction, as well as a reflection of respect to guests.
Traditionally Chinese people believe each type of food brings specific medicinal features. Ginger cures a cold, garlic stops diarrhea, spinach is good for the blood, walnuts are good for the brain, pear relieves a cough, etc. When in China, you cannot avoid stories on how adding a specific food to one’s diet helped cure some disease. Therefore, it is understandable why Chinese people attach such importance to food safety. Contaminated or unsafe food poses a threat to public health and also risks undermining social stability and cultural identity.
The root causes China’s food safety problems come from the country’s rapid development. China has experienced unprecedented growth in recent decades and now is the world’s second-largest economy. Such rapid expansion has unleashed positive and negative effects. The industrial boom coupled with urban expansion and infrastructure development put significant pressure on both land and water resources. Over the long term, that pressure could constrain the ability to produce more food.
We started with a standard warm-up question as Gangi Devi, our first respondent, sat in anticipation. “Tell me a little bit about your society. What is distinctive about the Himachali way of life?” A smile lined up a face creased otherwise with wrinkles. “We are a peaceful society,” she said after thinking a little. “People here are good to one another, we stand by each other.” A person sitting next to her added for good measure, “We Himachalis are very innocent people.”
For those working in the development space in India, the state of Himachal Pradesh, a small state ensconced in the Himalayas with a population of 7 million, is an outlier for many reasons, not least of which is Gangi Devi’s near puritan response.
Gangi Devi lives near a tourist centre close to Shimla, the state capital, which has seen increasing tourist footfall in recent years. Even as her community is debating the costs and benefits of increased activity around their village, Gangi Devi and her neighbours trust that the state government would keep people’s interests in mind and address adverse impacts, if any, of increased tourism on the environment.
Their belief in the government is supported by real actions. Himachal Pradesh is the first state in India to ban the use of plastic bags. Smoking in public spaces in the city of Shimla is punishable by law.
Governance in Himachal Pradesh looks doubly impressive when considered against an enviable development record.
But how long is too long? The question has arisen on each of my last four missions in as many months – from Kenya to Croatia to Serbia and back.
And it’s not a rhetorical question. Answers can assist client countries in analyzing their efficiency and devising reforms that improve both timeliness and user satisfaction. It also enables potential court users to better estimate how long it might take to resolve their dispute – allowing them to then adjust their expectations accordingly.
After all, better enabling people and businesses to resolve their disputes contributes to poverty reduction and shared prosperity.