Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Roads, refrigerators and the importance of wet markets

Two news items last Friday afternoon reminded me that there’s a lot more complexity to the world of agriculture and food than my own experience of it, especially in Asia and Africa.

1. Reuters reported on a new study from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) for the Copenhagen Consensus Center. It calculates enormous benefits to reducing hunger and malnutrition from what might seem like an unlikely source: better roads and refrigerators (cold storage to keep food from spoiling). I’ve spent many hours bumping over roads and stuck in traffic across Asia and Africa, tending to dwell primarily on the inconvenience to me and where I want to go.  But all of that time also has an impact on the availability and affordability of important food products in developing countries, because of the cost of transportation and high rates of spoilage before it even gets to a market. 

According to the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the needed investments in road, rail and electrical infrastructure:
… will cost $240B over the next 15 years but reduce the number of hungry people by 57m, and avoid malnourishment of 4m children. This generates $13 of economic benefits.

2. The other report I saw, which came from another one of the terrific family of international agriculture research centers, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), calls attention to the importance of the ubiquitous ‘fresh markets’ (or ‘wet markets’) that are found in every village across Asia and Africa. 

Commonly found in the form of open air pavilions housing a collection of small stalls, these informal markets sell fresh fruit and vegetable produce, as well as fresh poultry, meat and seafood. They are usually chaotic and very ‘fragrant’. Before I moved to Asia, I’d only ever seen meat wrapped tidily in plastic, well-chilled or frozen in a supermarket. But here whole or half-butchered animals often hang near a small portion of meat available to purchase. Sometimes a fan has been rigged with small ribbons overhead to keep the flies off.  

This important (and fascinating) research shows firstly, just how important fresh markets are for income generation and food security in developing areas. The second key finding is that policies designed to ensure the safety of food available in informal markets must be very carefully crafted and implemented so that they do not cause more harm than benefit. According to ILRI:
...A new compilation of 25 studies in Africa finds that informal markets provide essential sources of food and income for millions of poor, with milk and meat that is often safer than supermarkets.

Misguided efforts to control the alarming burden of food-related illnesses in low-income countries risk intensifying malnutrition and poverty — while doing little to improve food safety. Blunt crack-downs on informal milk and meat sellers that are a critical source of food and income for millions of people are not the solution. 

More reasons to want good roads, more reasons to support wet markets!

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