Why ‘agriculture cannot wait’

FAO director-general says under-investment responsible for rise in global chronic hunger.

International aid to farming in poor countries has slumped in recent years [GALLO/GETTY]

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) most recent estimates the number of people suffering from chronic hunger in the world has topped one billion.

A dangerous mix of global economic slowdown combined with high food prices in many countries is the immediate reason why 100 million more people have been pushed into chronic hunger and poverty.

But the underlying cause of this tragic situation is that investment in developing country agriculture has been neglected for a long time.

Official development assistance (ODA) going to agriculture fell drastically. International aid to farming in poor countries slumped from 17 per cent of total ODA in 1980 to 4 per cent in 2006.

Fragile food system

The FAO has warned for years of the dangers of under-investment in food production.

At a World Food Summit in 2002, I bluntly told world leaders that unless the trend was reversed the internationally agreed goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 would be missed. In fact, based on the current pace, the objective would only be reached in 2150!

The grim events of the last three years have only served to confirm this warning. With soaring food prices in 2007 and 2008, riots broke out in 22 countries in all regions of the world while countries rushed to defend themselves with restrictive and protectionist measures.

Those episodes clearly demonstrated how fragile our international food system is and how vulnerable we are.

Today, stocks of cereals have recovered from the extremely low levels they had fallen to in 2007 and 2008 but 31 countries – of which 20 are in Africa – are in a situation of crisis requiring emergency assistance.

Meanwhile, in January 2009 the FAO Food Price Index was still 25 per cent above the 2005 average.

Political will required

Plans, strategies and programmes to defeat hunger and malnutrition exist, both at national and regional levels. Success stories in the fight against hunger in Africa, Asia and Latin America illustrate that in terms of technical expertise and actions, we know what should be done and can do it.

Will G8 leaders who met in L’Aquila walk their talk of ending hunger? [GALLO/GETTY]

But feeding the hungry today and roughly doubling food production tomorrow for a world population projected to grow to over nine billion by 2050 will require political will and respect for the promises made.

In the 1970s, 17 per cent of ODA devoted to agriculture bought irrigation systems, storage facilities, rural roads, but also seed multiplications centres, fertiliser and animal feed plants.

With countries also allocating a significant share of their national budgets to farming, those investments saved the world from looming famine in Asia and Latin America.

As Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, used to say, “Everything can wait, but agriculture cannot wait”.

There were around 800 million hungry people back in the 1970s. Despite all the pledges on hunger reduction made in the last 40 years, there are now 200 million more.
It is clear therefore that, if we are to win the fight against hunger, there has to be a complete turnaround in the agricultural aid policies of donor countries.

They should sharply increase the level of their investments in the sector and go back to allocating 17 per cent of ODA resources to agriculture development while poor countries should devote 10 per cent of their national budgets to agriculture.

Walking their talk

The recent G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, marked an encouraging policy shift in that direction, with a promise to mobilise $20 billion over three years to help the poor and hungry produce their own food.

Still, it remains to be seen how far the world leaders who produced the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative will effectively ‘walk the talk’.

But, after years of neglect, food security is now evidently high up on the international political agenda and it would be surprising if the momentum that has built up is allowed to be dispersed.

Indeed, we are moving towards a major reform of the world food system in which increased investment would be one – albeit the most important – of several basic components.

A new World Food Summit – the third since 1996 – is to be held at the FAO headquarters in Rome on November 16-18, 2009 with a view to securing a broad consensus on the eradication of hunger by 2025, on improved governance of the international agricultural system and on policies, strategies and programmes to guarantee world food security.

Ensuring that the Doha Round of trade negotiations succeeds in making agricultural trade both free and fair and reviewing the current system of farm support so that it benefits both rich- and poor-country farmers alike, will be an important part of any accord.

Agreement on those issues would establish a new, more equitable world food order in which the most fundamental of human rights, the right to food, would be preserved for all.

Jacques Diouf is the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera

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