Soaring prices, rising hunger: What next in the global food crisis?

14 October 2008 12:30 - 14:00 GMT+00
Public event

Speaker

Dr. Jaques Diouf - Director-General, FAO

Discussant

Simon Maxwell - Director, ODI

Chair

Rt Hon Tony Baldry MP - Chair, APGOOD

Description

After falling in real terms for more than 50 years, food prices have soared – condemning an additional 75 million people to hunger and raising the estimated number of undernourished people worldwide to 923 million in 2007.

High food prices threaten any hope of achieving the 1996 World Food Summit goal to cut the number of hungry people in the world by half by 2015 and the Millennium Development Goal that would reduce by half the proportion of people suffering from hunger worldwide by 2015.

Hunger has actually increased, despite the world growing richer and producing more food than ever during the last decade.  But for a great many households, high food prices have had a negative short-term impact on household income and welfare. The poorest, the landless and female-headed households have been hardest hit. But, households across the UK and other industrial countries are also feeling the pain of high food prices.

The objective of this event was to highlight and debate the UN Food & Agriculture Organization’s approach to tackling these issues. The FAO recommends urgent action on two fronts to break the hunger-poverty trap: making food accessible to the most vulnerable, and helping small producers raise their output and earn more.

Dr Jacques Diouf described FAO efforts to meet the challenge of feeding a world population projected to reach 9 billion in 2050 and explain the essential role that smallholder farmers in developing countries will have to play in that endeavour.

FAO is helping vulnerable countries take urgent measures to boost food supplies. It is also providing policy support to improve access to food. These initiatives include emergency projects to distribute seeds, fertiliser, animal feed and supplies to smallholder farmers. Dr Diouf will also highlight other aspects of the FAO’s work on improving food production, such as preventing transboundary animal diseases, enhancing food safety and quality, and supporting agricultural trade negotiations.

Boothroyd Room

Tony Baldry MP (Chair)
Tony Baldry MP welcomed the audience and introduced the speakers and the FAO.

As a member of the International Development Select Committee, tasked with Scrutinising DFID’s work, he said how we are going to improve the state of agriculture is a question he is commonly asked.


Dr Jacques Diouf, Director General of FAO (Keynote Speaker)
Dr Diouf said that the recent price spikes and the current food price crisis brought to the public conscience issues of food security which the FAO have been working on for decades.
He offered a timeline:

  • In 1996 Dr Diouf hosted the first heads of state meeting to address the problem of world food security since the Second World War. 112 heads of state attended and set the objective of halving the number of hungry people in developing countries by 2015.
  • In 2002 a second world food summit had to be called because the trends were going in the wrong direction and hunger was increasing. If the trends maintained, the target wouldn’t be met until 2150.
  • The underlying problem which led to a second world food summit being called was the downward trend in investment in agriculture from 17% of the total ODA in 1880 to 3% in 2006.

However, Dr Diouf explained that we had to wait until food riots swept across continents before the issue gained adequate attention and leaders reassessed what priority we should give food security if we are to meet the needs of a growing population. The FAO state that we will have to double world food production to meet the estimated population growth to 9 billion by 2050.


Four things have to be done to increase food production and reduce the amount of malnourished and readdress the current imbalance in production between the developed and developing countries (2-4% of the population in developed countries can produce enough to feed the country and export. 80% of the population in developing countries can’t even produce enough to feed their population).

  • Tools and means have to be available to developing world farmers. They need the infrastructure to not be dependent on nature but instead operate under controlled conditions. This means irrigating arable land.
  • Storage needs to be available to avoid waste. Many developing countries lose up to 60% after production on certain commodities due to inadequate storage. Very simple technologies could avoid this loss.
  • Roads need to be built and maintained to get food to isolated populations and to market and to get inputs such as seeds, fertilisers and animal feed to farmers.
  • Lastly, and perhaps most fundamentally, we need to level the playing field in term of access to world markets. OECD countries provided US$367 billion in subsidies to their agriculture. The FAO estimate that we need US$30 billion per year to address the problem of world food security. The issue is not therefore, according to DR Diouf, the availability of resources, but one of political will.

Simon Maxwell, ODI (Discussant)
Simon Maxwell began by congratulating Dr Diouf for his leadership.

He went on to say the food crisis has slipped off the front pages, but is still ongoing. Prices are 50-100% higher than in 2006, for maize, wheat, rice.

Maxwell suggested that the food crisis has reminded us of some things we knew already:

  • Food is fundamental to human development and nutrition is an indicator of crisis. An extra 100 million people have slipped below the poverty line.
  • Food is also intrinsic to economic development. The food crisis has caused balance of payments problems, with the low income food deficit countries having to spend an additional $US75bn on imports. Food price inflation was responsible for 44% of global inflation in 2007 (67% in Asia).
  • Food is highly political and highly contested. 40 countries had food riots. 40 countries imposed export restrictions.
  • Despite many market failures, the laws of supply and demand work. When the US puts 24% of maize production into bioethanol, close to 100m tons, then prices inevitable rise. Similarly, when oil rises to $140 per barrel, fertilizer and diesel prices go up.

Maxwell suggested we also learned some things, or were reminded of things we might have forgotten:

  • Food is increasingly a global issue. The issues which preoccupy us in the UK: the role of supermarkets, food safety, obesity, biofuels, environment, GM, speculation –these are all issues of concern in a rapidly urbanizing developing world. Food is not just about self-provisioning peasantries.
  • With the right leadership, the multilateral system does work and the UN agencies can collaborate. The experience  of the UN and World Bank’s task force on food demonstrated this earlier in the year. It agreed upon a Comprehensive Framework for Action bringing together all the UN agencies.

Maxwell went on to say there are two main areas for action:

  • If food policy is inevitably contested, with no necessary ‘right’ answers, then the key step must be to embed food policy-making within national policy frameworks and political processes. Donors should then support nationally-owned policies, not through special funds, but using normal aid transfer mechanisms. The UK Cabinet Office report on food policy for the UK demonstrated the need for cross-cutting and joined-up thinking within Government.
  • It was essential to keep the UN at the centre of multilateral re-building. FAO was the obvious focal point, but could probably learn from the experience of the UK Ministry of Agriculture, which had been transformed under the leadership of David Miliband, from a farmer-led organisation, to one with consumer and environmental interests at the centre. FAO had the right building-blocks in place, but needed to evolve to engage with a wide spectrum of stakeholders.

Finally, Maxwell repeated that hunger and malnutrition were matters of basic social justice and human development. Progress was non-negotiable.

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