31 October 2009
The World Food Crisis
World Food Day, on October 16th, has come and gone. I wonder if anyone remembers this year’s theme: “Achieving food security in times of crisis”. Frankly, I found the theme rather obscure. It was coined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, whose founding in 1945 World Food Day commemorates. But to what kind of crisis was FAO referring: financial, family or a natural disaster? Perhaps it was referring to a crisis of confidence in the international mechanism of ensuring humankind’s basic right to food? That would certainly be timely.
Thirty-five years ago, Henry Kissinger, the then U.S. Secretary of State declared at the World Food Conference in 1974, that within 10 years no child would go to bed hungry. There are now over 1 billion people around the world that don’t get enough to eat. More than half of them are children who certainly go to bed hungry.
There is nothing obscure about the looming world food crisis. Food production in developing countries will need to nearly double by 2050, if the planet’s 9.1 billion people are going to get enough to eat. And that at a time when global climate change and extreme weather will have profound effects on food production in the world’s most populous countries. The drought in Ethiopia and floods in the Philippines are just the tip of the iceberg.
To address this daunting challenge, the leaders of the G8 countries announced at their meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, in July this year that $20 billion would be contributed to world food security over a period of 3 years. Last week, FAO’s Committee on World Food Security, the CFS, which serves as a forum within the United Nations system for policies on world food security, including it's production, availability and affordability, announced a series of wide-ranging reforms. In addition to broader participation by those UN agencies tackling food security issues, the CFS will now include other international organizations such the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, civil society and non-governmental organizations and private sector associations. It will also receive advice from a high-level panel of experts on food security and nutrition to ensure a scientific basis for solutions to hunger.
Broadening the forum to include the key stakeholders has to be a good move. But don’t expect unanimity of views to emerge anytime soon. President Barack Obama said at the L’Aquila G8 meeting that we need to grow more food and we need to grow it in Africa. But farmers and the agricultural lobby in food producing countries, including the United States, will want to protect their markets. That said, the days of papering over the underlying causes of world hunger with food aid grown in donor countries are over. That certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for food aid. Were that so, the little Indonesian girl in the photo, who is a survivor of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, wouldn't be getting her free ration of rice in a relief camp. But she’s actually eating rice grown in the USA instead of rice grown by farmers in her own country. The need for food aid will continue for as long as problems of availability and affordability persist. But the conditions on which it is contributed and the way it is managed require attention.
Next month, at the World Summit on Food Security, governments will have an opportunity to say what they think about the new arrangements to address the food insecurity faced by one-sixth of humankind. For 20 years, governments have let their investment in agriculture and food production in developing countries slide dramatically. It’s crucial that they reverse the trend. Agriculture sustains 70 percent of the world’s poor.