June 6, 2023

Ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Wednesday, May 31, the WHO lamented that 3.2 million hectares of fertile land in 124 countries are being used to grow deadly tobacco – even in places where people are starving.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said governments around the world “spend millions on supporting tobacco plantations”, and that choosing to grow food instead of tobacco would “enable the world”prioritizing health, preserving ecosystems and strengthening food security for everyone”.

Disaster for food, environmental safety

The agency’s new report, “Grow food, not tobacco,” reminds that a record 349 million people face acute food insecurity, many of them in some 30 countries across the African continent, where tobacco cultivation has increased by 15 percent in the last decade.

According to the WHO, nine of the ten largest tobacco growers are low- and middle-income countries. Tobacco cultivation increases the food security challenges of these countries by taking up arable land. The environment and the communities that depend on it also suffer, as the crop’s expansion leads to deforestation, pollution of water resources and soil degradation.

Vicious circle of dependence

The report also exposes the tobacco industry catch farmers in a vicious circle of dependency and exaggeration of the economic benefits of tobacco as a cash crop.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva on Friday, Dr. Rüdiger Krech, WHO director for health promotion, dat the economic importance of tobacco is a “myth we urgently need to dispel”.

He said crops in most tobacco-producing countries account for less than 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and profits go to the world’s largest cigarette companies as farmers grapple with the debt they have incurred with the tobacco companies. businesses.

‘Smokers, think twice’

Dr. Krech also explained that tobacco growers are exposed to nicotine poisoning and dangerous pesticides. The wider impact on communities and entire societies is devastating, some say 1.3 million child labourers are estimated to work on tobacco plantations instead of going to school, he said.

“The message to smokers is: think twice,” said Dr. Krech, as consuming tobacco amounted to supporting an injustice in which farmers and their families suffered.

Workers at a tobacco factory in Malawi fill processing machines with coal.  (file)

Workers at a tobacco factory in Malawi fill processing machines with coal. (file)

Break the cycle

The WHO has joined forces with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) around the Tobacco Free Farms initiative, to help thousands of farmers in countries like Kenya and Zambia to grow sustainable food crops instead of tobacco.

The program offers farmers microcredit loans to pay off their debts to tobacco companies, as well as knowledge and training to grow alternative crops, and a market for their harvest, thanks to WFP’s local procurement initiatives.

Dr. Krech said the program was a “proof of concept” of the power of the UN system to empower farmers to break away from harmful tobacco cultivation. He outlined ambitious plans to expand the program as countries in Asia and South America were already asking for support.

“We can help any farmer in the world get out of tobacco farming if they want to,” he said.