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“Prioritize Food Production Over Tobacco Farming,” says WHO

As World No Tobacco Day approaches, the spotlight is on the urgent need for global action to address food insecurity and break the cycle of tobacco dependence that perpetuates suffering for both farmers and vulnerable communities worldwide.

Shivam Dwivedi
“Prioritize Food Production Over Tobacco Farming,” says WHO (Photo Source: WHO)
“Prioritize Food Production Over Tobacco Farming,” says WHO (Photo Source: WHO)

In anticipation of World No Tobacco Day on May 31, the World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern over the use of 3.2 million hectares of fertile land in 124 countries for tobacco cultivation. The alarming fact is that this cultivation is taking place even in regions where people are suffering from starvation and food insecurity.

The WHO's latest report titled "Grow food, not tobacco" reveals that approximately 349 million individuals are currently facing acute food insecurity, with a significant number located in around 30 African countries. Disturbingly, tobacco cultivation has seen a 15% increase in these regions over the past decade.

Low and middle-income countries account for nine out of the ten largest tobacco producers worldwide. Unfortunately, the growth of the tobacco industry exacerbates the food security challenges faced by these nations by occupying valuable arable land. Furthermore, the expansion of tobacco cultivation has severe environmental consequences, including deforestation, water source contamination, and soil degradation.

The report also sheds light on the exploitative practices of the tobacco industry, which perpetuates a cycle of dependency among farmers while overstating the economic benefits of tobacco as a cash crop. Dr. Rüdiger Krech, WHO's Director for Health Promotion, emphasized the need to dispel the misconception regarding tobacco's economic significance. He stated that in most tobacco-growing countries, the crop contributes less than 1% to the gross domestic product (GDP), with the majority of profits going to major cigarette manufacturers. Meanwhile, farmers struggle under the weight of debt owed to these tobacco companies.

Dr. Krech further highlighted the health risks faced by tobacco farmers, including exposure to nicotine poisoning and dangerous pesticides. Additionally, the impact on communities and societies as a whole is devastating, as an estimated 1.3 million child laborers work on tobacco farms instead of receiving an education.

In response to these concerns, WHO, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), has initiated the Tobacco Free Farms initiative. The program aims to assist farmers in countries like Kenya and Zambia in transitioning from tobacco cultivation to sustainable food crop production.

The initiative provides farmers with microcredit loans to pay off their debts to tobacco companies, as well as training and knowledge on alternative crops. Additionally, through the WFP's local procurement initiatives, the program ensures a market for the farmers' produce. Dr. Krech sees the program as a "proof of concept" illustrating the ability of the UN system to help farmers break free from harmful tobacco cultivation. He expressed ambitious plans to expand the initiative, as countries in Asia and South America have already requested support.

Dr. Krech affirmed that they have the potential to help any farmer worldwide who desires to transition away from tobacco farming. The WHO's message to smokers is clear: to support an equitable situation in which farmers and their families are not suffering, it is crucial to think twice before consuming tobacco.

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