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Q&A: "It’s Wrong to Burn Food of the Poor to Drive Cars of the Rich"

Ernest Corea Interviews ISMAIL SERAGELDIN, former World Bank Vice President

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 6 2009 (IPS) - The world needs to overcome “the bizarre irony that rural areas, where food is grown, is home to cruel poverty and hunger,” says Ismail Serageldin, former chair of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Ismail Serageldin Credit:

Ismail Serageldin Credit:

Serageldin, currently director of Egypt’s prestigious Bibliotheca Alexandrina, was the World Bank’s vice president for environmentally and socially sustainable development during most of his term as CGIAR chair.

While making the case for mobilising agricultural technologies as broadly as possibly in support of food security, Serageldin also cautioned against the indiscriminate use of technologies that work against the poor. Speaking specifically of biofuel technology, he said, “It is wrong to burn the food of the poor to drive the cars of the rich.”

In an interview with IPS contributor Ernest Corea, he said that poverty, hunger and environmental degradation “challenge us to transform agriculture yet again – as we did in the 1970s – to ensure that food security can become a reality, that productivity is sustainable, and that agriculture fulfils its potential as an engine of growth.”

The challenge is both technological (requiring the development of new, high-productivity, environmentally sustainable production systems) and political (requiring policies that do not discriminate against rural areas in general, and agriculture in particular), Serageldin explained.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: The global recession has aggravated both poverty and hunger. Around a billion people did not have enough to eat in 2008 and the instability of prices continues to threaten livelihoods and lives. Lack of food security, hunger, and malnutrition appear to be permanent features of life in so many countries. Is this a pessimistic assessment or is there a way out of what looks like a continuing dilemma?

ISMAIL SERAGELDIN: The key to handling food security is increasing production to increase the caloric coverage for both food and feed at rates that will match or exceed the quantity and quality requirements of a growing population, whose diets are changing because of rising incomes.

This increase must be fast enough for prices to drop (increasing accessibility of the available food to the world’s poor) and be achieved by increasing the productivity of the small-holder farmers in the less developed countries so as raise their incomes even as prices drop.

IPS: Increased food productivity and production have been goals of farmers and policymakers from the day of the “green revolution”. Yet, the goals have not been fully realised. Can they be met now?

IS: The required productivity increases will require all the available technology, including the use of biotechnology for food and feed products, an approach that every scientific body has deemed to be safe, even though that is being challenged by some organic food growers and various (mainly European) international NGOs.

Yes, of course, food production technologies must be safe and sustainable. At a time of incredible technological opportunities we need to harness all that can help to alleviate and eventually eradicate hunger and poverty.

IPS: Isn’t the expanding use of biofuel technology having an adverse impact on food security?

IS: Biofuels should not be allowed to compete for the same land and water that produces food for humans and feed for their livestock. We need to look into a new generation of biofuels, using cellulosic grasses in rain-fed marginal lands or from algae in the sea or other renewable energies (solar and wind) and not divert food and feed products for fuel production.

IPS: As we think ahead to the Copenhagen conference on climate change, do you feel there is adequate awareness of how climate change affects food security?

IS: Climate change has increased the vulnerability of the poor farmers in rain-fed areas and the populations who depend on them. Special attention must be given to the production of more drought resistant, saline resistant and less thirsty plants for the production of our basic staples that we rely on for both food and feed.

The rights and interests of smallholder farmers will need special attention in Copenhagen. These are the farmers whose efforts are particularly important in the rural areas of developing countries.

IPS: In addition to productivity, what other areas of agriculture or agriculture-related activity require more research than is being carried out at present?

IS: The qualitative aspects of food and feed and their production are important. Additional areas where research is needed and where specialists must provide guidance are to decrease post-harvest losses, increase storability and transportability of food, and increase the nutritional content of the food through biofortification of food crops.

Remember, also, that food security does not mean food self-sufficiency for every country. We need a fair international trading system that allows access to food and provides some damping of sudden spikes in the prices of internationally traded food and feed crops.

IPS: How can the strength of public opinion be mobilised in support of sustainable food security?

IS: Public education campaigns about food security and eating habits of people are needed, and eminent professional groups should get involved. Like the global anti-smoking campaign, we need a global pro-healthy food habits campaign.

But we also need to campaign with the governments to maintain buffer stocks and make available enough food for humanitarian assistance that will inevitably continue to be needed in various hot spots around the world.

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