GENEVA, May 27, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - The World Health Organization said Friday it
was helping a growing number of farmers turn away from tobacco to help
strengthen food security, particularly in Africa.
Ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Wednesday, the WHO said it had teamed up
with other United Nations agencies to support farmers wishing to convert from
growing tobacco to growing food.
The scheme's pilot in Kenya has proved successful and now the UN wants to
export it to other countries and continents.
"A record of 349 million people face acute food insecurity and that is up
from 135 million in 2019," Ruediger Krech, the WHO's director for health
promotion, told reporters in Geneva.
"Then we have 124 countries which grow tobacco as a cash crop, covering an
estimated 3.2 million hectares of land. Approximately 200,000 hectares of
land are cleared every year for tobacco crop growing."
Beyond its effects on the health of smokers and farmers, tobacco growing
poses a problem for food security, according to the WHO.
The UN health agency is concerned that tobacco companies are gaining an
increasing foothold in Africa, with a rise of nearly 20 percent in tobacco
plantations across the continent since 2005.
"It is often said that tobacco farming would be so important for economic
growth. This is a myth that we urgently need to dispel," said Krech.
He said it only accounts for more than one percent of gross domestic product
in five countries: Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and North
"So the profits go to the global tobacco companies."
- Dependency 'trap' -
The WHO accuses the tobacco industry of trapping farmers in a "cycle of
dependency", giving them little control over product prices and quality.
"They're trapped. They need to repay the debt before they can discontinue the
work for big tobacco," said Krech.
Three UN agencies -- the WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the
World Food Programme -- have set up a credit programme to help farmers pay
off their tobacco industry debts and change their crop.
The scheme was launched in Migori county in southwest Kenya, where 2,040
farmers have been helped in the first year.
"We were really positively surprised to see so much interest," said Krech.
"But they saw that this is a viable alternative," making triple the profits.
"They have already shifted to growing high iron beans. This moving away from
growing also meant that children can go to school instead of growing tobacco.
"Mind you, 1.3 million children are working in tobacco fields."
Krech said the concept had been proven in the first year and it hopes to have
around 5,000 farmers on board -- 4,000 in Kenya and 1,000 in Zambia -- by the
end of the next season.
"From there, we will move to other countries in Asia and South America,
because that's where the big tobacco growth still takes place," he said.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement: "Tobacco is
responsible for eight million deaths a year, yet governments across the world
spend millions supporting tobacco farms.
"By choosing to grow food instead of tobacco, we prioritise health, preserve
ecosystems, and strengthen food security for all."