Development & Aid, Europe, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT: More Food May Not Mean Less Hunger

Paul Virgo

ROME, Oct 29 2009 (IPS) - Achieving ambitious Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) production targets to meet growing world demands will not suffice to feed the world, and focusing too much on churning out crops may even be damaging, experts warn.

The Rome-based United Nations agency said earlier this month that world food production must increase 70 percent by 2050 to nourish a human population likely to reach 9.1 billion. It said this can happen if developing countries, expected to generate most of the extra 2.3 billion people, increase agricultural investment by around 83 billion dollars per year.

But FAO’s estimate that over one billion people, almost one-sixth of humanity, are suffering hunger in a world that today generates more than enough to feed everyone suggests that meeting this target is only part of the equation.

“We ask how we can feed the world by 2050, but what we should also ask is how we can overcome poverty by 2050,” Hasan Sahin, programme officer of the Tehran-based Economic Cooperation Organisation tells IPS.

Marco Contiero, the genetic engineering and sustainable agriculture specialist at Greenpeace’s European Unit, also thinks there is a danger of taking too narrow an approach. “The dogma that we just need to produce more is wrong,” Contiero tells IPS.

“Of course we must increase production where it is at low levels. But we already produce lots of food and yet we still have one billion people going hungry, while 1.6 billion are overweight and 500 million are obese. This shows there is much more to the problem.”

Some analysts fear the drive to meet quantity targets could lead to an increased use of large-scale industrial farming of a restricted number of crops – methods that have kept the First World well-fed but which might not be appropriate for developing countries.

One of the main reasons these methods may be inappropriate is that they risk further damaging the plight of poor people in rural areas worst affected by hunger, where a Catch 22 situation frequently materialises.

“When the prices are too low the farmers have no cash. If the gate price does not even pay for the calories they spend in their muscles on ploughing, that’s nonsensical. But when prices are high, poor people become very vulnerable,” Roberto Ridolfi, head of the European Commission’s Europe Aid F3 Unit, tells IPS. “It’s bad news for poor people no matter what.”

Helping developing countries’ small farmers to break out of poverty, on the other hand, could create a virtuous circle in which they stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.

“We are not the ones who feed the world, the farmers are. What we need to do is motivate farmers to increase productivity – farmers need to be a major concern for us,” Benyamin Lakitan, secretary of Indonesia’s State Ministry for Research and Development tells IPS.

“The problem in developing countries is that farmers’ prosperity has really not increased for decades. We need to put more effort into increasing farmer prosperity; that way farmers will help us to increase food production. Financial incentives for farmers is the key issue.”

Ridolfi, who is in charge of the 1 billion euro Food Facility the EU set up to help the most exposed after the sharp rise in food prices in 2007-08, sees a need for three levels of action.

“The first is boosting production in poor countries, not everywhere. The second is ensuring small-scale investments are made at the community level, small dams, small irrigation schemes, small feeder roads, which are very important so that poor farmers can produce their goods and get them to market. The third is safety nets to ensure that vulnerable groups in rural areas are not in the position that they cannot work on the land.”

Dr Warwick Easdown of the Taiwan-based World Vegetable Centre says there are several other important issues that are in danger of being neglected if there is excessive concentration on production.

“It’s all about production and technology for production,” Easdown tells IPS. “I think we’ve missed some key points; one is that some 95 percent of research done in the last 30 years has been on increasing production rather than reducing losses.

“If you’re going to feed the world in 2050, it has to get into people’s mouths. There is a big step between producing a crop and getting it into someone’s mouth.

“In the area where I work, vegetables, where you are dealing with a lot of perishable crops, there are very high losses. Regularly it’s up to 50 percent, even in developed countries we know the post-harvest losses are 15 percent. But that has received very little interest and very little focus.

“By reducing losses we can significantly increase the total amount of food available. So I think we have to look beyond the agronomist’s perspective of just increasing production here.”

Easdown is also worried that not enough attention will be paid to the quality of people’s diets amid the furious rush to ensure there are enough staple foods to fill stomachs. He says this could lead to dramatic consequences in health terms.

“We are focusing on an awfully small number of crops, we have been looking at four major staples but you simply cannot survive on eating rice,” he said.

“We know that in many countries up to 70 percent of all energy comes from one staple and that leads to very unhealthy diets. If we just go on producing more and more staples, that reduces agricultural biodiversity and reduces the quality of people’s diets.”

He also argues that some strain could be taken off the food system by combating over-consumption in wealthier parts of the world.

“Now we have more overweight and obese people than people suffering hunger, and yet we want to produce more food,” he said. “In many cases there are people putting too much in their mouths but we haven’t even looked at that.”

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