Responding to the Global Food Crisis

Posted April 10, 2009 at 3:04pm

The Obama administration’s commitment to strengthen the American support to fight poverty and hunger could not have come at a more opportune time. Every year, about 5 million children die of hunger and nutrition-related causes — that’s about 10 children, every minute of every day.[IMGCAP(1)]This tragedy is worsened by the global food crisis reverberating throughout the world, with low-income people experiencing severe hardships. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the large increase in food prices during 2007 and the first half of 2008 added more than 100 million people to the 850 million already unable to afford this precious commodity. The current financial crisis will only further exacerbate this problem. The food and financial crises are a wake-up call to governments and development agencies, which have all but ignored investing more in the food and agricultural sectors of developing countries. For millions of hungry people, time is running out. The lesson for developing countries is clear: Ignore rural and agricultural development at your own peril. Fortunately, falling food prices during the last six months provide breathing room to create a long-term and strategic action plan. Now is the time to create a food-secure world for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. That being said, the falling food prices should not create a false sense of complacency. Failure to take appropriate action now will result in new food crises, continued degradation of natural resources, more hunger, increasing child mortality and ultimately global instability.The situation is particularly serious in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where poverty and hunger are on the rise. The majority of people suffering from poverty and hunger reside in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Many of them are unable to produce the food that they need to feed their families and are stuck in a situation where they cannot expand production, even when prices go up. The local markets for what they produce and for the inputs that they need, such as fertilizers, do not work. They do not have access to credit, improved crop varieties or knowledge to improve their production systems. And making matters worse, the roads and other vital infrastructure are all but nonexistent.In response to these challenges, we propose that the Obama administration and the new Congress make agriculture once again the center of a strong development policy and a focus of cooperation among and within nations. Fortunately, through the leadership of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a group was convened to develop a blueprint for how the U.S. can make global agricultural development a priority. The recommendations advanced in the report, “Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty: The Chicago Initiative on Global Agricultural Development,— include increasing support for agricultural research, education and extension to generate and disseminate the knowledge and technology needed by low-income farmers in Africa and South Asia, and strengthening the region’s universities and research institutions. The support is urgently needed to help countries and farmers adapt to and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change and to increase productivity to meet increasing food demands while protecting natural resources. We also recommend that investments in rural infrastructure, especially roads, be given high priority by the U.S. government and the World Bank. Helping low-income farmers produce more will help them out of poverty, protect the environment, make more food available for consumers at reasonable prices and provide a buffer against future food crises.We are encouraged that the new administration and Congress are serious about leading and helping create the second green revolution. The Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act, approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 31, would authorize increased funding and support for many of the agricultural research and education initiatives needed to support smallholder farmers in the developing world. Moreover, just last week, President Obama affirmed that the U.S. will more than double its foreign assistance toward agriculture to $1 billion by 2010. Both of these efforts echo the recommendations put forth by The Chicago Council’s report.The new administration is certainly saying the right things, but it is imperative that the rhetoric about poverty and hunger reduction and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals finally be converted into action and that efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change pay attention to food and agriculture.Furthermore, developing countries and the international community should prioritize action to assure sustainable food security for all, now and in the future. Agricultural development is the most effective vehicle for general economic growth and poverty reduction in low-income countries. But it must be followed up with appropriate action or we will surely experience a new global food crisis and many more hunger- and nutrition-related deaths.The opportunity for leadership to overcome hunger is wide open, and it cannot become yet another lost opportunity. Per Pinstrup-Andersen is the H.E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell University. Joachim von Braun is director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute. M. Peter McPherson is president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.