Restocking the global pantry

Corn fieldThe outcome of the recent World Food Summit attracted little reporting in the Australian media. Unfortunately the focus as usual was on personalities, notably the attendance of Presidents Mugabe and Ahmadi-nejad. Otherwise it was not seen as especially newsworthy.

To expect the Rome summit to reach concrete plans of action is to misunderstand the function of this kind of global conference. Its importance lay in the fact that its purpose was to bring home to national leaders two things. First that feeding the world population in the coming decades is as big a challenge as sufficiently constraining global greenhouse gas emissions. Second, that the two issues are connected.

Over the last 30 years investment in agriculture in developing countries has fallen away. Official development assistance to the agricultural sector fell from about 18 per cent of total aid to around 3.5 per cent in 2004. Other sectors such as 'security', governance and democratisation became more fashionable.

Donors and recipients have forgotten that the foundation of economic development in poor countries remains a sustained rise in agricultural productivity. For most of the last 30 years food has been cheap and stocks high. Surpluses in developed countries meant food aid was abundant. The consequence for some food deficit poor countries was a preferential shift in demand for imported wheat and rice in place of traditional staples.

With food stocks falling food aid is a diminishing resource. The United Nations World Food Program reports food aid deliveries in 2007 fell by 15 per cent to 5.9 million tons, their lowest level since records began in 1961. As a consequence it has become difficult even to supply sufficient food to the victims of natural disasters and those displaced by armed conflict.

Quite correctly the Rome meeting did not emphasise food aid as such, though it did refer to the need for the relevant UN agencies to be assured of the 'resources', that is, cash or food aid, to 'enhance safety net programs through local or regional purchase of food'.

Some of the same adverse effects of climate change on agricultural output that we worry about in Australia are beginning to be evident also in much of Africa and Asia. Appropriately the Summit saw it as 'essential to address the fundamental question of how to increase the resilience of present food production systems to challenges posed by climate change'.

To that end it called for a 'decisive step up in science and technology for food and agriculture' and for a reduction in 'trade barriers and market distorting policies'.

On the whole the international community has a poor record in taking action to implement agreed general principles, but their articulation is an essential first step. Meeting the climate change challenge is daunting enough. At the same time food production must be increased enormously in the next decades not just to keep people alive but also to enable the billion or more expected to move out of poverty to enjoy more varied diets.

Making real progress on the food and climate fronts will require strong, disinterested leadership. Ideally this should come from the UN Secretary General. Ban ki-moon's attendance and involvement at the Rome Summit may signal that he seeks to do so beyond issues of peace and security which have preoccupied his predecessors. He has since stated that he will focus on the issue of food security at the meeting this month of the G8.

In his keynote message to the Rome Summit Pope Benedict XVI called for 'new strategies' to promote food production. The Vatican intends to play its part. The Pontifical Academy of Science is establishing an expert panel to consider contentious issues surrounding genetically modified foods.

The Summit failed to deal with this issue although many scientists are convinced that without them it will not be possible to meet future global food needs.

Republished courtesy the East Asia Forum blog.

James IngramCareer Australian diplomat and international civil servant, James Ingram was Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Program from 1982–92, with the personal rank of Under Secretary General.

Flickr image by thetrapezium

Topic tags: james ingram, world food summit, bio-fuel, food aid



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