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DEVELOPMENT: Rome, Food Capital of the World – Part 1

Miren Gutierrez* and Oriana Boselli

ROME, Oct 3 2009 (IPS) - It was once true that all roads led to this ancient capital. Today it is the furrows of maize, wheat and rice fields that take you to Rome, where the biggest global food organisations are headquartered, and the World Summit on Food Security (Nov. 16-18) is being organised.

A farmer harvests sorghum seeds in Sudan. The price of the seeds has doubled over the last two years. Credit: U.N.

A farmer harvests sorghum seeds in Sudan. The price of the seeds has doubled over the last two years. Credit: U.N.

The situation couldn't be more momentous.

"The global food insecurity situation has worsened and continues to represent a serious threat for humanity," says the summit website. According to the latest U.N. projections, the world population will rise from 6.8 billion to 9.1 billion in 2050 – a third more mouths to feed. Most population growth will occur in developing countries.

High food prices in developing countries, a global economic crisis affecting jobs, deepening poverty, and more hungry people combine to paint a bleak picture.

So, what are the expectations of the food organisations present in Rome?

Kostas Stamoulis, head of the Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) agricultural development economics division, says this summit "is not a fund- raising exercise…the original position is that we eliminate hunger, preferably by 2025, although I am not sure if this will be the summit's objective, because the countries have yet to agree on the targets…"

One of the concrete issues on the table, he says, is "reform of the global governance of food security. It has to be better coordinated, because so far every crisis turns into a big disaster. Also, despite all the wealth in the world, we have seen chronically hungry people increasing since 1996."

A recent paper by FAO says that "producing 70 percent more food for an additional 2.3 billion people by 2050 while at the same time combating poverty and hunger, using scarce natural resources more efficiently, and adapting to climate change are the main challenges world agriculture will face in the coming decades."

For Stamoulis, in order to produce more food, "we have to make sure that farmers are properly supported in the developed and developing countries, not at the expense of each other." So far we are not doing a good job, he says. "Developed countries support farmers tremendously, while developing countries do not have the means.

"Part of the objective too is to make sure that countries realise that a lot more resources have to be devoted to agriculture. Not necessarily during the summit…this is not a pledge summit. That happened in July, when the G8 pledged 20 billion dollars to support agriculture. This is a summit where countries, at the highest level, reconfirm their support."

At the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) most powerful countries, held in July in the Italian city of L'Aquila, they decided to mobilise 20 billion dollars over three years to fight the food crisis, and it was said the money could be used to promote agriculture rather than as aid. But people like Paolo di Croce, secretary-general of Slow Food International, were sceptical. "We have to change the model that caused this situation (of food crisis), not patch up the gaps with some crisis money," he said in an earlier interview with IPS.

For Stamoulis, this is a good point. The money should be invested primarily on small farmers, he says. Investments should be made too in infrastructure – roads, ports, storage facilities. "In terms of technology and access to markets, we have to make sure small holders take a fair share of this allocation, so they increase their productivity."

Considering that 30 countries are currently experiencing food emergencies, "another issue is to have a better early warning system and a better coordinated response," he says.

What is new in comparison with the food crises of the 1970s and the historic World Food Conference of 1974?

"Now we have the Committee on the World Food Security (CFS), which meets all the criteria to become a real world partnership from the bottom up," says Stamoulis. "One of the issues leaders will talk about is precisely the reform of the CFS, of which I have the honour to be the secretary-general."

According to Stamoulis, the CFS is undertaking reforms in order to involve civil society in the decision-making process, so it becomes "a real global forum for coordination of the various national and international initiatives on food security."

In the 70s, the summit took place under the pressure of the food crisis. "But here we are putting something together that will tackle not only the food crisis, but also more structural issues and chronic hunger. And this should be done with a lot of stakeholders' participation, not just a group deciding. That is a big difference. This time we have a better chance to succeed, because we are more inclusive."

The voices of the food organisations interviewed for this report seem to echo the tension between two crucial problems: the need to address urgent food emergencies right now, and the need to invest in longer-term structural solutions.

The host of the summit, the FAO, is one of three U.N. food agencies based in Rome. Each has different goals. FAO acts as a "neutral forum" where all nations meet to negotiate agreements and debate policy. FAO's staff includes agronomists, foresters, fisheries and livestock specialists, nutritionists, social scientists, economists and statisticians, "who collect, analyse and disseminate data that aids development."

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is another. Unlike FAO, IFAD specialises in financing rural development projects.

Kevin Cleaver, IFAD's assistant president, says IFAD has seen money for agricultural projects increase now to "the largest percentage ever."

"The economic crisis that began 2008 has affected developing countries' food production very negatively," he says. "All statistics point to that effect: in 2008 and 2009, the number of people globally suffering from hunger or malnutrition increased about 100 million.

"Things were getting better in the previous five-year period…but 2008 was a turning point," he says, due to a combination of factors: the financial crisis, fewer remittances, less income coming in, less money to buy food. "Credit dried up in the developed countries, so you can imagine what happened in the high-risk investment countries of Africa or other low income countries of Asia. It just disappeared. And that had a very negative impact on agriculture."

Then, the G8 meeting in L'Aquila happened. "One of the reasons why IFAD was so happy with the results was that the world leaders admitted that the food crisis was creating havoc in the developing countries and generating food insecurity," says Cleaver. "The increase of hungry people was unacceptable, but also a security threat. If hungry people become angry, it is more likely that they take up a gun, emigrate to Europe or the U.S…the G8 was admitting a security problem, and this is the first time we have seen such a thing."

Money was not only pledged, "some of these countries are starting to follow up, to deliver," he adds. "In the past we often had just words. Now we see some action."

IFAD was established as an international financial institution in 1977 in one of the major outcomes of the 1974 World Food Conference. Is the same sort of momentum building up now?

Cleaver says there are some important differences.

"IFAD was part of the response of the international community to a similar crisis," he says. "The prices of the major food staples and livestock products hugely increased in 1974 and 1975. There was a shortage of food; starvation. The international community got together, and created IFAD.

"It did some other things, like putting more money in research. A lot of bilateral aid agencies invested in agriculture. Even in the private sector, one of the things we saw is big investments in agriculture. The effect was that by the end of the 1970s, food prices had gone down dramatically. In the 1980s, there was an abundance of food even in developing countries.

"Real prices of food relative to other commodities continued to fall. The world went into abundance. The function of the World Food Programme (WFP) was to take some of this surpluses in industrial countries and distribute them in places in distress," he says. "There is no longer a global surplus.

"The world cereal stocks are at historic low," says Cleaver. "The real prices of food have increased dramatically. Look at the statistics: the rate of growth of agricultural productivity has declined to about a third of what it was. In other words, science and technology haven't generated growth, haven't kept up with people's growth. Supply is not keeping up with demand."

Why? "Complacency; we were so successful. Donors got out of the agriculture business. We also have seen less investment from the private sector. Institutions like the Inter American Development Bank and USAID, almost all of the bilateral agencies, have withdrawn from agriculture. This has destroyed agricultural capacity."

On top of this, climate change and other "serious slow environmental problems" combined to "crush agriculture". Cleaver mentions areas such as South Asia and China, dependent on natural irrigation, that are in danger now for lack of rain.

"What has happened in these areas is a salinisation," he says. "The extraction of water has been so great that the aquifers have disappeared. So, globally there are huge water shortages in irrigated areas. In Mexico, 50 percent of aquifers are totally exhausted. These areas are producing nothing. Uzbekistan had huge irrigated areas. Now it looks like snow, because the salt is so thick. Nothing can grow in that 'snow', not even weeds.

"We need to invest massively in a different kind of agriculture, less water- dependant, less destructive, less petroleum-based, less mechanised, a conservation agriculture, a complicated agriculture," he says. "The reason is: if we don't do that, we destroy the planet and everybody starves."

And that is what is at stake here, in Rome.

*Miren Gutierrez is IPS Editor-in-Chief.

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