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DEVELOPMENT: Plenty On the Plate – Part 2

Miren Gutierrez* and Oriana Boselli

ROME, Oct 4 2009 (IPS) - "From a current 6.5 billion population, a billion don't get enough to eat right now. Extrapolate that to 2020, and you begin to recognise why this is not just a moral problem, it is a national security problem that has much more to do with civil strife, warfare, terrorism, immigration… This goes far beyond food."

An internally displaced person in Congo carries rations distributed by the World Food Programme. Credit: U.N.

An internally displaced person in Congo carries rations distributed by the World Food Programme. Credit: U.N.

That is the issue on the plate for the World Summit on Food Security (Nov. 16-18), says Kevin Cleaver, assistant president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

And the results of the summit cannot be business as usual.

"I am not a NGO type," he says. "But I agree the current food system is fundamentally not sustainable. A billion people go to bed without enough food. Something has gone terribly wrong. In the developed world, obesity is the problem. Poor people (in rich countries) are malnourished."

What needs to be done?

For Cleaver, it is a clear, although not an easy choice. "Reallocate public resources to agriculture production in developing countries, where the epicentre of this crisis is. By the countries themselves, by the donor agencies run by the industrial countries, by the multilateral institutions like IFAD, the World Bank…A hard choice: it means shifting resources into agriculture, and taking them out of something else.

"Also, a lot has to be done in the area of policy," he says.

"We find that when the food crisis occurred in 2008, many developing countries made the wrong choices, tried to impose price controls on farmers. Argentina, for example, squeezed the farmers by taxes. The result is always that the farmers stop producing or start smuggling. A very inefficient, shortsighted response.

"Other countries did stupid things. The Philippines started to buy massive amounts of rice and stuck it in a warehouse. Each time they went to the market, the price went to the ceiling…so poor countries were crushed," he says.

"In industrial countries we have the most stupid set of subsidies…About 200 billion dollars a year are devoted to subsidies to U.S. and European companies, a bigger amount than all the aid of all institutions put together. We subsidise this tiny little group of corporate farms to the tune of gazillions. And what sort of farming do they practice? The kind the Slow Food movement criticises. Is this what we want to do with the money? No."

So what will happen during the summit?

"This is an effort by FAO to be relevant. They recognise the crisis, and they want to have a discussion at the global level to solve it," says Cleaver. "The problem with these big U.N. gatherings, however well intentioned, is that they don't actually change much. In 1974, there were some institutional changes. I hope this food conference leads to an equivalent kind of response. But my guess is it won't change much.

"The most we can hope," he adds, "is that it will raise awareness in the public about the stakes. The press is not reporting the issues, only pieces of it. They haven't quite caught on to the global dimension of this dilemma. This summit could manage to get the word out beyond a few bureaucrats."

Do others hope more from the summit?

The third big U.N. agency headquartered in Rome, the World Food Programme (WFP), specialises in delivering food to people who are caught in a humanitarian crisis, such as a drought, flood or war. "Simply put, it keeps people from starving to death," says the WFP site.

The most urgent problem facing the WFP now is the food emergencies in about 30 countries.

"Food prices on international markets reached a peak in mid-2008 and since then we have witnessed a decline. However, the cost of food in many markets in the developing countries where WFP works has remained stubbornly high," says Greg Barrow, global media coordinator of the WFP.

"For example, the FAO has found that in sub-Saharan Africa, 80 to 90 percent of all cereal prices it monitored in 27 countries remain more than 25 percent higher than before the high food price crisis began two years ago," he says.

"In Kenya, food prices have risen by 120 percent over the past year," according to INTERFAIS, the organisation that monitors the flow of food aid. "This makes WFP's work extremely challenging at a time when the numbers of hungry people are increasing…and when the international flow of food aid is at a 20-year low."

How come, when Kevin Cleaver from IFAD says money for agricultural projects has increased now to "the largest percentage ever"?

"It's important to make a distinction between food aid donations in kind, and cash donations for the purchase of food," says Barrow. "The disappearance of food surpluses is probably some part of the overall picture, but it is not the answer on its own.

"I cannot comment on IFAD's funding situation, but WFP is facing an almost unprecedented shortfall in its budget in 2009. We have barely one-third of the money we asked for at the beginning of the year, and are likely to fall far short of our 6.7 billion dollar budget to feed 108 million people in 74 countries in 2009."

WFP receives around half of the food it uses as donation. The remainder comes in the form of cash for food purchase. Of the 2.8 million metric tons of food (valued at 1.4 billion dollars) that WFP purchased in 2008, 78 percent was bought in developing countries.

So, what about the money pledged at L'Aquila?

"WFP has always advocated a twin-track approach that would see investment in long-term agricultural development at the same time as support for emergency food assistance to address urgent hunger needs," says Barrow. "However, it is important to note that even if food production can be improved, many of the poorest people in the world would still face difficulties accessing the food they require, and their needs should not be forgotten."

Barrow distinguishes between emergencies (floods, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes and conflict) creating the need for food assistance, and the "issue of access to food," which refers to the "difficulty that the world's poorest people have in accessing affordable nutritious food to meet their daily requirements. This challenge is likely to continue to exist even if food production increases."

Will they be forgotten at the summit?

"Any meeting that engages world leaders, policy makers and the humanitarian community in an effort to address the issue of food security is welcome," he says. "For it to be successful, the participants have to agree on a concrete programme of action…At the same time, there has to be a commitment from governments to provide the resources necessary to achieve the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of hungry people on the planet by 2015."

What do others say?

The concentration of the three big U.N. food agencies in Rome determines the presence of others. The International Alliance Against Hunger (IAAH) – born on World Food Day 2003 – is one of them. IAAH brings together international agencies, government bodies and civil society organisations "in voluntary partnerships" to advocate for concerted action against hunger.

"The fact that the number of people who are hungry continues to rise in spite of the commitments in successive summits…is appalling. It is as though leaders who come to these meetings believe that, simply by making speeches the problem will go away," says Andrew MacMillan, former Director of Field Operations Division of FAO and currently Special Advisor to IAAH. "Almost every nation on earth has pledged to end hunger, but only a handful have embarked on the hard work of putting properly funded national programmes in place.

"One lesson is that even the most eloquent commitment to a global goal is largely meaningless," he adds. "Each government that endorses the global goal should return home and make a national commitment to play its part, and agree to be held accountable for delivery. Then we might see some serious results."

The only "good thing" about this crisis is that "it has pushed the hunger issue up to the top of the international agenda, even if for all the wrong reasons," says MacMillan.

MacMillan says there are two dangers facing this World Food Summit.

"The first is that it will be used as an excuse for the international community to impose the wrong solutions to the problem. We can see this now in the emphasis being given to the use of ever higher levels of purchased inputs in small-scale farming communities without due regard to the environmental sustainability and nutritional consequences.

"The second danger is that other important themes, such as climate change, will move up the agenda and increasingly divert attention from the food issue, lulling people into the assumption that it has been resolved. The G8 might even be tempted to conclude that, by earmarking 20 billion dollars over three years to address hunger, it had absolved itself of any further responsibility.

"If the 20 billion dollars really become available and are spent on the right things, we should see improvements, but it must be put in perspective. It is the equivalent of about six dollars per year per hungry person. Will that really make a difference?"

According to MacMillan, even if FAO, WFP and IFAD "were to get their act together," it would not be enough. "Eradicating hunger and malnutrition by 2025 is entirely possible but it needs a supportive global policy environment and it depends on every country playing its full part," he says. The Rome- based agencies "must learn to work in genuine partnership" with other institutions, especially WHO (World Health Organisation), UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund), UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

On policy, "any reformed institution that brings them together" must have the authority to address major global issues affecting food and nutrition security, she adds. That means it would have "a significant say" in such issues as trading arrangements for food commodities; setting of targets for minimum global food stock levels; safeguarding natural resources for future food production, and setting the agricultural research agenda.

IAAH is working with civil society organisations on urging governments to involve themselves at the November summit. "But we are also calling on them to follow this up by making their own 'National Declaration of Commitment' and to deposit this and a national food security and nutrition plan to achieve the eradication goal by 2025, in an international 'Public Register of Commitment' for all to see," he says.

Bioversity International is the world's largest international research organisation dedicated to the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity. It is also based in Rome. It began its life in 1974 as what was called a field programme within FAO, explains Ruth Raymond, Bioversity's head of the public awareness unit. "We didn't separate from FAO until 1994…When we became independent, we decided to stay in Rome because we wanted to continue to work very closely with FAO, our main partner."

"I am delighted that the Rome-based food agencies are expressing renewed interest in food security, and the commitment to fighting hunger is strong," says Emile Frison, Bioversity Director General, about the summit.

"My concern is that unless we invest more in agricultural research and development, we will not solve the long-term problems of sustainable food security, and will continue to need emergency relief," says Frison.

"The response of donors to acute famines has been exemplary," says Frison. "But in the face of climate change, growing populations, water scarcity and other threats, we need to invest in intelligent, sustainable solutions."

*Miren Gutierrez is IPS Editor-in-Chief.

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