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OPED: Economic growth alone won’t end hunger

ROME, Nov 20 2012 (IPS) - Recent decades have witnessed remarkable rates of growth for many developing countries. That is good news, as high growth rates of GDP per capita are a key factor in reducing food insecurity and malnutrition.

But economic growth alone is no guarantee of success in the fight against poverty, hunger and malnutrition, as the 2012 edition of The State of Food Insecurity in the World, recently released by the Rome-based United Nations agencies, shows.

In order for economic growth to enhance the nutrition of the neediest people, poor women and men must participate in the growth process and its benefits.

Success stories from all developing regions make one thing clear: investment in agriculture, more than investment in any other sector, can generate economic growth that delivers large benefits to hungry and malnourished poor people. That is because most of them live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

We have learned that smallholder farmers can be supported to benefit from higher food prices and become part of the solution to reducing price spikes and improving overall food security. Higher prices of agricultural commodities can definitely provide positive incentives for increased investment in agriculture.

However, better policy responses and improved governance are also needed to address the effects of increased price volatility and of higher food costs for poor people, who spend a large share of their income on food.

Major climatic events are causing severe damage to agriculture. Until we find the way to make our food system climate-resilient, the danger will remain. Practical solutions that promote sustainable intensification of food production systems, ensure strong involvement of smallholder farmers, increase their access to markets, reduce their exposure to risk, build the resilience of rural communities and preserve natural resources are urgently needed.

We must also reduce the enormous amount of food lost or wasted throughout the food system — which has been estimated at around one third of total production.

There has been progress in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. The global number of chronically hungry people has fallen by 130 million since 1990, and the proportion of hungry people has dropped from 18.6 percent in 1990 to 12.5 percent today.

Still, nearly 870 million people continue to suffer from undernourishment, and the negative health consequences of micronutrient deficiencies continue to affect around two billion people.

In a world of plenty, childhood malnutrition kills more than 2.5 million children every year, and more than 100 million children under the age of five are underweight, and therefore unable to realize their full socio-economic and human potential. This is morally unacceptable and economically foolish. Good nutrition is key to sustainable economic growth.

While the world grapples with the burden of undernutrition, we are faced with an increasing trend towards overnutrition. A growing number of people have adopted lifestyles and diets that are conducive to being overweight and related non-communicable diseases, taxing public health systems in many countries.

Working with national governments and the international community, our organizations are committed to developing better-integrated approaches to food security and nutrition that are both “pro-poor” and “nutrition-sensitive” by promoting positive, sustainable interactions among the agriculture, nutrition and health sectors.

The world has the knowledge and the means to eliminate all forms of food insecurity and malnutrition. No ambition in achieving this aim is too high, which is why we welcome UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent “Zero Hunger Challenge”.

It’s up to all of us to rise to meet it. In the fight against hunger, the ultimate sum of all of our efforts must be zero hunger.

*The authors are  the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

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