Of the almost seven billion people on the earth, about one billion are starving. The crisis in the agri-food sector has been triggered by a long list of unlucky events, and by steadily increasing demand along with unpredictable weather patterns and poor financial management.
The world population is expected to reach 9bn by 2050 or before, and feeding so many mouths will be a challenge. But with the right programmes we can produce enough food to go round. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has put it: “the question is not whether we can end hunger, it's whether we will”. If the right actions are taken now, we can eradicate starvation.
A multitude of factors lie behind the agri-food sector’s global crisis, and they include rapidly increasing energy prices, trade distorting subsidies and fast-growing demand in some Asian countries for higher-protein foods arising from economic growth and larger incomes. The devastating effects of natural disasters, caused at least in part by climate change, along with low food stocks and financial derivatives speculation on agricultural commodities have also helped push up prices. The food price crisis of 2008 and its likely repetition this year are a reminder that agriculture is one of the main determinants of economic, social and political stability around the world.
This global food security crisis is having a particularly devastating effect on the world's poorest, many of whom of course live in countries that already suffer from acute and chronic malnutrition. This lack of affordable food inevitably means increased malnutrition, and in consequence greater child and maternal mortality and rising morbidity and disease. Higher food bills mean that the poorest households have less money to spend on health services, aggravating the problems of people suffering from diseases like HIV/AIDS that require constant treatment. Children are particularly affected, as poor nutrition during key growth periods can lead to impaired mental development, diminished learning ability, reduced work productivity and the increased prevalence of chronic diseases. They are also more likely to suffer from anaemia and other micronutrient deficiency conditions than their better-fed peers.
To meet expected demand over the next 20 years, global food supplies must increase by an estimated 50%. The answer is sustainable agricultural-led growth that will so increase the availability of food that prices are affordable and the incomes of poor farmers in developing countries are also boosted.
This can be achieved through a programme for subsistence farmers that doesn’t only lead to improved production systems. It also offers reductions in weather dependency, simple financing instruments to encourage investment in new technologies and equipment, increased land ownership and easier access to local markets. Lifting subsistence farmers out of their currently precarious and vulnerable states would be equivalent to halving the number of hungry people, and would at the same time achieve the first of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
But it’s a programme that can only be achieved if international organisations like the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), work hand-in-hand with national governments and also with private donors and partners. The EU and other developed countries are already intent on tackling the problem of global food security, and could easily tailor their own schemes to become part of this wider programme. For example, the EU supports the growth of agriculture and rural development through two types of instrument; first, the geographical ones such as the so-called European Development Fund (EDF), which supports the implementation of agricultural policies in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, and the Development Co-operation Instrument which gives the same kind of support in Latin America, Asia and South Africa. They already add up to significant spending – the present EDF, which runs from 2007-2013, sets aside over €1bn in support for agriculture, rural development and food security in Africa alone.
The second type of instrument is emergency funding to deal with unforeseen circumstances such as weather disasters, market breakdowns or political instability. The EU’s ad hoc €1bn Food Facility is a good example, having been created in 2008 for rapid responses to soaring food prices in developing countries. Its objectives also include boosting agriculture in the short to medium-term in a number of selected countries.
As part of an FAO project in Burkina Faso, the EU’s Food Facility has helped to provide quality seeds to 100,000 vulnerable farmers, benefiting in all about 700,000 people amid the growing food crisis in the Sahel region. With EU support worth €18m, this operation will improve the food security of more than 860,000 rural households, or over 6m people. Similarly, two Food Facility projects with a total of €2.5m in Mozambique are benefiting almost 50,000 farmers and nearly 300,000 rural families by increasing agricultural production, improving conditions for commercialising products and addressing food security issues that affect rural households.
But as well as these financial instruments, we also need to increase research and development so as to move from simply maintaining the status quo to modernising agriculture and reducing the risks of crop failures. Better livestock production systems that work in an environmentally sustainable way need to be developed, and we must boost investment in capacity-building, services training, market access and ways to strengthen the food chain. All these are just as important as the funding of research into the best ways of effectively combating cross-border animal and plant diseases. Agriculture also needs to be seen in the context of the wider eco-system, which means developing improved ways of looking after such resources as soil, forests and fisheries.
To tackle global food security successfully, we have to change the way we treat rural development, adopting as the norm a much more bottom-up approach. Again, I think the EU is leading the way with its policies for rural development in developing countries through ways that include promoting broad-based rural economic growth by boosting primary production and making it more efficient. Also by promoting agricultural practices and technologies that are environmentally sustainable and raise rural incomes while also stimulating rural off-farm activities.
An important step would be the better regulation of global financial markets so as to put an end to derivatives speculation that forces up food prices. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organisation’s Doha Development Agenda desperately needs to be concluded, and the EU has made a number of positive moves in this direction by proposing vast changes to its export subsidies regime. Europeans’ spending on export refunds has declined considerably in recent years – having accounted for 30% of agricultural expenditure in the early 1990s, they now represent less than 1% if rural development is excluded. This huge drop results from successive reforms of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), from commitments made by the EU to the WTO and from other developments on world markets. Last year, Europe’s spending on export refunds dropped by over 40% from 2009 levels to stand at only €400m.
If all these ideas are implemented, irrespective of population growth the world’s inhabitants will be able in 2050 to enjoy the same rights and aspirations without suffering from the effects of food insecurity. But the number of people with limited access to affordable and nutritious food is growing, for fully a third of the today’s global population are still living on less than a dollar a day. That means we need to act urgently if we are to create a world in balance, where the economy, ecology and social responsibility all play an equal role, and the poorer, southern hemisphere countries are not exploited to feed their wealthier northern cousins. And with more and more subsistence farmers being driven off their land by pressures far beyond their control, we need to find better ways of balancing the needs and rights of country people and city dwellers. Unless we do so, not only our generation but also that of our children will fail to create an environmentally sustainable world where people live in dignity.