DEVELOPMENT: Have a Hungry New Year (No Don't)

  • by Paul Virgo (rome)
  • Inter Press Service

The number of people without enough to eat crossed the one-billion mark for the first time in 2009, and November's United Nations World Summit on Food Security failed to live up to hopes that it would be a historic turning point to end this scourge.

The meeting at the Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) Rome headquarters was snubbed by the most powerful nations' leaders, did not establish binding funding commitments for the fight on hunger, or set a date for its eradication.

Experts say food prices are still high in developing countries after the spike of 2007-08 which, together with the financial meltdown, lifted the world's hungry tally to 1.02 billion. Prices will remain volatile, they say.

What's more, one of the consequences of the failure of the Copenhagen climate change talks in December is that no progress has been made on what is an increasing threat to food security in many parts of the world.

'If you look at all the effects of global warming, food security is really where it all hits home at a most fundamental level,' Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, told IPS. 'At a basic level, crop yields are affected by rising temperatures and once temperatures get too hot, crops can fail.

'It affects water resources. In some places you'll have too much water, in others too little. Our water resources are already stressed and the loss of glacial melt will affect many rivers in the dry season.

'Then you also have sea level rises. Just a one-metre rise in sea levels would flood a large chunk of Bangladesh's rice land, for example. You're looking at tens of million of climate refugees, having to move out of their areas, losing their food supplies.'

So given the old year's grim legacy, is there any hope of making inroads into the number of hungry people in 2010?

The FAO believes there is.

First, while its experts say the world is not out of the woods regarding the food crisis, and though the food-price index hit a 14-month high in November, they do not expect a repeat of the 2007-08 crisis in the near future.

'A healthy stock situation and good production prospects reduce the risk of a major price surge over the next six months,' said the FAO's Hafez Ghanem.

Furthermore, the agency argues that, with the right policies, it is possible for developing countries to make progress in food security even in times of economic hardship. In its recent Pathways to Success report, the FAO highlighted the cases of some of the 31 states, including Brazil, Nigeria, Vietnam and Armenia, who have bucked the negative trend to reduce the number people in their lands with empty stomachs.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, but these experiences suggest that while defeating hunger might be tough, it does not have to be complicated if tackled with determination.

A common denominator in the success stories is the use of twin-track strategies - investing in agriculture, especially smallholder farmers, to boost food availability in the medium term, while providing safety nets so the needy can survive in the short term.

'Our task is straightforward,' says Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme, part of a threesome of Rome-based U.N. food agencies along with the FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

'We must meet emergency food needs when disasters like droughts and floods strike. We must ensure access to nutritious food and safety nets for those who are hungry today. And we must grow more food for a growing population tomorrow. We have the tools and technology to help nations achieve food security.'

Good safety nets are well targeted to the hungry and tailored to the circumstances.

For example, the FAO says cash or food stamps are often the best ways to improve access to food where markets function, while direct food aid or food-for-work schemes are better where they do not, such as in war- affected regions.

Economy ministries working with tight budgets may balk at the cost of such programmes. But research shows they should be viewed as investments that generate their own income streams, rather than welfare, as they increase demand for local food output and boost the economy.

Agricultural investment is crucial because the FAO says a long-running decline in this is the main reason why hunger statistics were on the rise even before the 2007-08 price surges.

Smallholders and their families, who number two billion (or almost a third of the global population), are particularly important because they are a big chunk of both the problem and the possible solution.

Two-thirds of the world's poorest people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods, according to IFAD.

But if they are equipped with the appropriate technologies, seeds and know- how needed to improve their yields and cope with climate change, they will be able to haul themselves out of poverty and contribute to meeting the growing demand for food of a global population forecast to reach 9.1 billion by 2050.

Economic growth originating from agriculture is at least twice as effective, on average, in benefiting the poorest than non-agricultural growth, the FAO says.

One of the successes of 2009 was the commitment the Group of Eight leading industrial nations made in July to mobilise 20 billion dollars over the next three years for sustainable agriculture in developing countries. But perhaps the most positive thing the world takes from an otherwise bleak old year to work with in the new one is the consensus achieved at the Rome summit on the need to put agriculture and the plight of smallholders first.

'It's amazing that we have this much consensus,' IFAD assistant president Kevin Cleaver told IPS. 'I'm in the business of reading and writing strategies and I've been in this business for a long time, and I've never seen such consensus from the experts on how to move forward. At the international level and among agencies such as IFAD and the World Bank there is a homogeneity on strategy, that is a big change from the past.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service