Never in the history of mankind have so many people been so hungry. Despite rapid development, modern technology and burgeoning international trade, today an estimated 1.02 billion people around the world are wanting for food. Here in Asia and the Pacific, 640 million people are malnourished. From 16 to 18 November, representatives of some 190 countries will gather in Rome for the World Summit on Food Security. Addressing this serious state of affairs will be uppermost on the agenda of the heads of state and government in attendance. This will be the third World Food Summit organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations since 1996, when countries agreed to the goal of halving the number of hungry people in the world by 2015. At first, steady progress towards that goal was being made in many quarters. By 2005, 28 developing countries had reduced the ranks of the malnourished by 104 million. However, since 2007 rising prices, food and fuel shortages, financial meltdowns and economic crises, climate change and other factors have wiped out a decade’s worth of gains. Instead of fewer malnourished people, we now have more than ever before.
With just six years remaining before the 2015 deadline, delegates to the Summit would appear to be presiding over a great failure. Failure, however, is neither predestined nor predetermined as an outcome.
It is within the power of those gathering in Rome to turn back the rising tide of hunger sweeping across the globe. Achieving the goals set in 1996 will require recommitment and refocusing by all in attendance. More importantly, it will require action on three important fronts.
Climate change: Agricultural and food production will be adversely affected by climate change. Countries with high numbers of poor and malnourished people, and that are already vulnerable to droughts, floods and severe storms, will be particularly hard hit. In developing countries in Asia, crop yields could suffer a decline of 20 to 40 percent if temperatures rise by more than 2°C.
Climate change will reduce water availability and lead to an increase in plant and animal pests and diseases. Only 38 percent of Asia’s arable land is irrigated, and the continent uses barely 20 percent of its water resources. The rainfall upon which people depend for survival is becoming increasingly unreliable.
The clearing of forests for farming, monocropping that leaves soil barren and infertile, and other practices have unfortunately contributed to global warming. Agriculture offers great potential, however, to mitigate some effects of climate change through better methods, such as impoved cropland and grazing-land management. Agroforestry and rehabilitation of degraded lands can actually help absorb some of the excess carbon that contributes to global warming. These better practices need to be more widely disseminated and adopted.
Official Development Assistance: In a time of financial crisis, requesting developed countries to increase their Official Development Assistance (ODA) is a difficult call to make. A more pragmatic course would be to rebalance existing ODA, along with any increases that can be afforded. Prior to the 1990s, agriculture received on average 17 percent of all ODA. Today, that figure has eroded to 3.8 percent. In a sense, the sector was a victim of its own success. Food was plentiful. Prices came down. Governments became complacent, and aid and investment declined. This benign neglect is widely thought to be the root of policy failure which should be addressed by all stakeholders.
The situation, however, has changed. A complex mix of factors has sent food prices soaring. Chief among them is the high increase in grain prices since 2007. Although food commodity prices have decreased since their peak in 2008, the prices people pay for food at local shops are still high, and are expected to remain so. Yields of cereals essential for food and animal feed have barely increased, and not always kept pace with growing demand.
An encouraging shift of policy was last July’s $20 billion Food Security Initiative launched by G8 leaders in L’Aquila. However, we need to go further. To achieve sustainable growth in food production – and green agriculture – including measures for adapting to and mitigating climate change, requires a collective resolve to further increase the proportion of ODA devoted to agriculture. It is a big jump, but it must be made.
Research and development: In the Asian and the Pacific region, land available for agriculture is scarce and becoming scarcer all the time. This trend will not change. With less land available for cultivation, the only solution is to increase productivity and harvest more from the land we have. Farmers must become more efficient. But for yields to rise, better technology in the form of more productive seeds and other resources and materials must be developed and become readily available. Research and development is a prime area into which investment must be targeted – not just by government, but also by private industry. More productive farmers can mean more profits for business.
Research and development is an area in which private industry has shown it can excel. Here in our region, it is an area into which investments must be targeted. It is time for the governments of the region to introduce policies to encourage the private sector, and partner with it, to invest in agricultural research and development for food security.
Food security is essential for economic development. The hungry and malnourished, if they have the opportunity and ability for employment, are often less productive workers. Their children tend to suffer from stunting and learning disabilities, creating a cycle of poverty that can trap not just families, but communities and entire nations for generations. Hunger leads to discontent: discontent leads to social unrest.
These are not shadows of what might be, but a portrait of what is already happening in many parts of the world. Time and again, history has shown us that if we do not effectively address food security, then we will be courting disaster on a grand scale.
By 2050, the world population is projected to be 9.1 billion people, with East and South East Asia’s population growth forecast to be 13 percent. To feed everyone at that time, food production and supplies will need to double in developing countries over current levels. It is imperative that we begin acting now. It will be crucial that we sustain our efforts. To meet this challenge, our targets must be both realistic and aggressive.
Access to food is a fundamental human right. Yet for some, eradicating hunger is an ideal rather than a goal. We who will gather in Rome for the World Food Summit beg to differ. For the sake of the one in every six of our fellow men, women and children who are suffering from hunger, malnourishment and starvation, it is a goal that we can and absolutely must achieve.
Dr He Changchui is assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.