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DEVELOPMENT: Looking to the Past to Feed the Future

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Nov 14 2009 (IPS) - As wheat rust threatened crops in the 1950s, a global effort to breed resistant wheat varieties led to 117 million hectares of cropland being protected from the deadly fungi and ensured the food security of 60 to 120 million rural households.

This and 19 other success stories are highlighted in a new book from the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It comes as world leaders prepare to meet in Rome next week for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation’s World Summit on Food Security. There are already mounting fears that the summit will fail to draw significant leaders or commitments as it tries to fight the hunger that afflicts a sixth of the world’s population.

But the book points out the success that has already been achieved over the last 50 years – and that hunger used to afflict a third of people.

The fact that a billion people are still undernourished “may look like failure, and it really is”, said David Spielman of IFPRI at a book launch event Thursday, but “the absolute number of hungry has remained the same, while the proportion of the hungry has decreased as the world’s population has doubled since the 1950s.”

“Today, over five billion people are food secure,” he said.

The main points to be taken away from the victories detailed in the book, though, say the organisations, are the lessons regarding what methods of agricultural development work to alleviate hunger.

“Learning from past achievements in agricultural development is now more urgent than ever,” said IFPRI’s Rajul Pandya-Lorch in a statement. “Until now, however, relatively little evidence has been available on where, why and how these interventions succeeded.”

“I am enthused about this book, as it presents stories of proven successes in a tangible way, so that people can understand and learn from what actually happened,” said Bill Gates.

Among the achievements examined are policy reforms, innovations in farming practices and new crop varieties – from the Green Revolution that saved Asia from famine from 1965 to 1985 to Nepalese forest management policy reforms beginning in 1978.

In the mid-1980s, market liberalisation in Bangladesh allowed irrigation equipment to be imported and sold in the country, which gave rise to irrigated rice farming and the doubling of rice production, according to the book.

Likewise, a dairy development programme in India called Operation Flood transformed India from a dairy-importing country to, now, the world’s leading producer.

The majority of case studies come from Asia, with five from Africa, one from South America and two that are global.

The authors hope to see further investment in agricultural development programmes with the potential to make an impact come out of next week’s summit.

“Success breeds success,” said Joachim von Braun, director general of IFPRI, Thursday. “Investment in agriculture is accelerating and we must make sure forums like next week’s food summit and the investment portfolio that come out of Copenhagen…that these investments are done well,” he said, referring to the climate change talks to be held in Copenhagen starting Dec. 7.

There have been recent signs that world leaders agree that agricultural development has a pivotal role to play in fighting hunger. Meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, in July G8 countries pledged 20 billion dollars over three years to agriculture development in poor countries.

And the website of the U.S. magazine National Journal reports that the acting administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development will head the U.S. delegation to the FAO summit, leading to speculation that the Barack Obama administration plans to emphasise agricultural development assistant rather than food aid.

Still, in recent years the fight for food security has hit difficulties, particularly with the food price crisis of 2007-08, when prices hit record highs and led to social upheaval in developing countries.

The effects of that crisis are still being partly felt today. A quarterly FAO report on crop prospects released Tuesday said cereal prices in West Africa continue to be well above pre-food crisis levels. Millet in the region’s major markets is 21 to 42 percent more expensive than it was at the same time of year in 2007.

It also says, “Despite a satisfactory global cereal supply situation, 31 countries around the world require external assistance because of critical food insecurity,” particularly in East Africa where poor rainfall and ongoing conflicts are leading to a need for emergency assistance.

Kenya’s corn harvest is expected to be down 30 percent from last year, and about 5.9 million people in war-torn southern Sudan and Darfur are estimated to be in need of food assistance, it says.

The FAO, however, does seem to agree with IFPRI that there has been success in the ongoing fight for food security – and that there is reason for hope.

On Wednesday, the FAO released a report, entitled “Pathways to Success”, that says 31 out of the 79 countries they have monitored have seen a significant decline in the number of undernourished people since the early 1990s.

Sixteen of these countries, it says, have already achieved the target of halving the number of hungry by 2015, or are on track to do so.

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