Image: Wikimedia Commons/Oxfam East Africa

I finally got to see the movie The Martian, and one scene really spoke to me as my husband Bob and I munched our popcorn. (Spoiler alert.) American space explorer Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) is stranded alone on Mars by mistake. He has to stretch the remaining food rations for an extra seven months. Meanwhile, ground control advises him that he must eat much, much less.

In a spacesuit, helmet off, Damon demonstrates the cutbacks to his video log. “I used to eat three of these food loaf slices a day,” he says, holding up a bread-sized slice. “Now they tell me to put two aside.” He puts them aside. “Then, I’m supposed to cut the remaining slice into three pieces. And I eat one of those pieces every day.”  I choked on my popcorn. One meal a day? One skimpy little meal a day?  For seven months?

Food is always a complex topic, especially for women. At our house, this time of year of finds us at farmers’ markets, picking through crisp fresh vegetables, stone fruit, and berries, blushing pink peaches, green pickling cucumbers, crunchy orange carrots and unctuous purple eggplants, and bright boxes of multicoloured tomatoes squeezed like tiles, atop saw-horse and tables.

Healthwise, dollarwise, community wise, we feel virtuous when we get carried away at farmers’ markets because we’re supporting local producers and, well, vegetables don’t have any calories, right? Like our permaculture neighbours, we think local is better. We grow some of our own food too, mostly salad greens, in Calgary’s short 60-day growing season. We compost everything compostable. We care a lot about our food, and we hate waste. We try to make smart choices for ourselves and for the planet.

We also worry about the potential breakdown of the modern far-flung just-in-time food delivery systems. Much of Calgary’s fresh produce comes from California, especially in the winter. California is subject to fires, floods, and droughts, not to mention the possibility of extreme weather between here and there.

Also, one of the definitions of a “failed state” is that the state no longer has a monopoly on the use of force. In the U.S., that’s called the Second Amendment. Any kind of shooting war puts the civilian food supply chain at risk. Right now, according to the World Food Program, 20 million people worldwide are at imminent risk of starving to death, mostly in four countries ravaged by wars.

The Food Security Information Network (FSIN) reports that 108 million people globally meet the FSIN definition of Stage 3 “crisis,” showing acute malnutrition even though they are receiving food supplements from an international aid agency. This is a 35 per cent increase from 80 million reported in 2016

“We are witnessing the highest level of human suffering since the Second World War,” declared the World Humanitarian Summit. In 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called together more than 8000 experts from 180 countries to plan for the unprecedented threat of famines in four countries at the same time.

The 2016 Summit estimated 244 million migrants are on the move around the world. For the first time, nearly half the migrants are women, often pregnant or carrying a young child or two. For 2017, the UN Population Agency estimates 65.6 million of the migrants are displaced persons, forced from their homes by local conflicts (that is, wars) or natural disasters.

The World Humanitarian Summit generated 3,500 recommendations and prompted a new Food Security Information Network, as a collaboration among the World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the European Union’s International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).   

The Summit’s goals were to find ways to fulfill five Core Responsibilities:

  • Global leadership to prevent and end conflict.
  • Uphold the norms that safeguard humanity (which are eroding).
  • Leave no one behind — include women and girls
  • Change people’s lives  — from delivering aid to ending need
  • Invest in Humanity

Ending conflict is the top priority, partly because starvation looms most starkly in war-struck countries, like Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and the newly independent South Sudan. On a scale where “Crisis” is number 3, and “Emergency” is number 4, FSIN’s country forecasts for 2017 add up to 42 million people at risk for number 5, “Famine.” 

Civilians account for most of the casualties in any war, and yet they have little say in whether somebody attacks them. Suddenly their home (their neighbourhood) isn’t safe any more. Cars and buildings start exploding around them. Their parks become battlefields, their streets punctuated with gunfire, and their skies filled with missiles and bombers. The more dangerous their surroundings, the harder it is for them to escape — or for aid agencies to reach them with food and medical supplies.

More than half of the population of Syria has fled their homes, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “including 6.1 million people displaced internally and 4.8 million refugees in neighbouring Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where needs far exceed the resources of host governments and communities.” The FAO adds that within Syria, around 9.4 million people are in need of food assistance, which sounds like almost all of those who remain.
In Yemen, after six years of war, two million out of 27 million people are displaced, says the BBC. With the conflict still raging around them, 70 per cent of the population needs emergency aid. Seventy per cent (17 million) are in Stage 2 or 3 for food insecurity. Fourteen and a half million people don’t have access to clean water. Cholera has struck nearly 125,000 people, one-quarter of them children. Nearly 1000 have died, mostly from lack of basics like salt solutions and food.

Boko Haram has ravaged Nigeria and other countries in Africa’s Lake Chad region for decades. The world’s youngest country, South Sudan, is oil-rich but troubled with rebels. Somalia has barely recovered from the 2011-2012 famine, when the country lost nearly 5 per cent of its population and 10 per cent (133,000) of its children, after the most severe drought in 60 years.  

Again, women and children suffer the most. Combine the wars with natural disasters in Haiti and southern Africa, and the tally shows that one in four children around the world  is living in countries affected by emergencies, or about around 535 million children. In May, UNICEF counted 300,000 unaccompanied or separated children among migrants world wide.      

What starts as a civil war can easily become a proxy war, where greater powers reach down, like the Greek gods, and promote domestic disputes. Two sides battle for Yemen’s integrity. On one side are Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly-Sunni Muslim states, with logistical and intelligence support from the U.S., U.K. and France — and armoured personnel carriers supplied by Canada.

Opposing them are the mostly Shia Muslim Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who hold about one-third of the country, around the capital city, Sanaa.  

In Syria, all sides say they are fighting Daesh, or ISIS. Apart from that, allies sometimes seem to be at cross purposes. Reuters says: “Moscow backs the Syrian government, which also is aided by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah as it claws back territory from Syrian rebels and Islamic State fighters. The U.S. military is backing a collection of Kurdish and Arab forces focusing their firepower against Islamic State…” which irritates Turkey, a major U.S. ally who also has disagreements with the Kurds.

Personally, I’m having trouble figuring out who the good guys are. Millions of innocent people are caught in the crossfire between opponents or even just rivals. “In 2015, 244 million people, or 3.3 per cent of the world’s population, lived outside their country of origin,” says the UN Population Fund.  And the UN Refugee Agency (’s 2016 annual report counted 65.6 million in 2016, refugees who needed their help to flee danger — to find safe refuge after leaving their country, or being displaced internally — and help to return home, or find another safe country.

UNFPA acknowledges that many of the hardest-hit countries have been suffering for years, if not decades. Food aid costs for 2017 will rise to $22 billion USD, from $20 billion in 2016. The agency points to the World Humanitarian Summit, and its commitments to action.

So let’s see. Europe is swamped because economic, political and religious concerns are pushing  hundreds of thousands of individuals to risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean. Canada is dealing with frightened U.S. green card holders who are crossing into Canada even in freezing weather. Africa and the Middle East hold 20 million people who are trapped by conflicts, unable to feed themselves and their children.

These starving millions are not on Mars, or even always on the other side of the planet. They’re on Earth and they’re on the move, looking for safety. They’re arriving on our shores and in our cities. We owe them. Rightly or wrongly, to some extent, our privileged lives have come at their expense, through colonial exploitation. The minimal foreign aid we provide, our donations to overseas charities, are tiny compared to the wealth our corporations have reaped from their resources. Often, starvation wouldn’t be a threat if local peoples had had control of their resources.

We can and must welcome our new compatriots, of course, but we can do more. Since the Nazi march and peaceful countermarch in Charlottesville, I’ve seen a lot of Facebook friends speak out against being silent bystanders. As the pre-emptive counter-marches in Vancouver and Boston showed, when the majority of people spontaneously do the right thing, injustice can’t take root.
Bystanders can and do change history. And we are all bystanders as our global neighbours suffer the scourges of war, disease, and famine. For us righteous foodies, love of food has to mean more than making our own choices at the farmers’ market. Millions of our brothers and sisters are starving, scraping the dirt, eating soil and sticks — or else leaving their homes, risking their own lives and their childrens’, in their desperate search for survival.

So I’ve added another item to our food budget: a dollar a day for our friends abroad. Every five days, I text “WFP” to 45678, and automatically donate $5. This is another chance to  do the right thing spontaneously. And it’s soothing to do. Having a bad day? I text $5 to the World Food Program and feel better, knowing that a desperately hungry mother or child will have nutrition.

Humanity needs to band together and put an end to the twin scourges of war and climate change, or assuredly, they will put an end to us. In the coming months, as the crisis explodes, reputable organizations like CARE, OXFAM, UNICEF, the Humanitarian Coalition, and the World Food Program will be beating their drums for money to help people in distress. 

This is our world now. Tens of millions of vulnerable women and children are struggling to find food and safety, after encounters with conflict or natural disaster. They need our help, our money, to survive.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Oxfam East Africa

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Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...