Please manage the food better

A farmer in Tigray, Ethiopia
(Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN)

A new global architecture to govern food security is urgently needed to reduce the number of hungry people, and predict and prevent another food price crisis like the one that took the world by surprise in 2006-08.

Shenggen Fen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a US-based think-tank, urged leaders of the G8 industrialised countries and G20 emerging countries, who will be meeting in Canada for two days from 25 June, to focus on this issue.

"The existing governing systems, and even countries, failed to predict the [food price] crisis in 2007/08," and ever more people have been going hungry since then, he told IRIN.

The food price crisis and the recession that followed pushed the number of malnourished men, women and children to more than one billion in 2009, according to UN agencies, and the figure is still growing.

"Hunger has been much more pervasive than poverty ... If past trends continue, global food security will deteriorate even further," warned an IFPRI report on meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger, called Business As Unusual, written by Fen and released on 23 June.

"While food prices have dropped, incomes because of the recession have been reduced by a much higher rate," said Holger Matthey, an economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The G8 countries pledged US$22 million to tackle global hunger at their 2009 meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, "But we don't know how much of that money has come through," said Fen, who proposed setting up a tracking system to monitor funds for reducing hunger.

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IFPRI uses its Regional Strategic Analysis and Knowledge Support System (ReSAKSS) to monitor funding for agriculture in Africa. "We could maybe expand this system to cover global flows," Fen suggested.

After the 2006-08 crisis, when staples such as maize, rice and wheat climbed to their highest prices in 30 years, many donor countries, aid agencies and analysts suggested that the existing Committee on World Food Security (CFS) be reformed.

The CFS is a technical committee of the FAO, and serves as a forum in the UN system for the review and follow-up of policies on world food security, food production, nutrition, and physical and economic access to food.

Jacques Diouf, director-general of FAO, announced last week that the CFS was being reformed to make it a "global platform for policy convergence and the coordination of expertise and action in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in the world".

Fen said the UN Secretary-General's High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, set up after the crisis, had done a "good job" in coordinating initiatives to respond to the crisis.

"But that task force also needs support - it needs current information from policy institutes such as IFPRI and other academics; there needs to be more information-sharing between governments and organizations to make this work."

Another crisis?

Uncoordinated policy actions of governments across the world during the 2006-08 food crisis made prices even more volatile and affected access to markets, said a new joint Agricultural Outlook for the next 10 years, produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and FAO. Food prices have come down, but are still high, according to FAO.

The Outlook acknowledged that the 2006-08 food price crisis "was due to the contemporaneous occurrence of a panoply of contributing factors, which are not likely to be repeated in the near term. However, if history is any guide, further episodes of strong price fluctuations in agricultural product prices cannot be ruled out, nor can future short-lived crises".

High crude oil and energy prices were major contributors to forcing up food prices in 2006-08. Fossil fuel and energy prices not only affect the cost of agricultural inputs, but expand the quantity of agricultural land being diverted to produce grain for biofuel. "Crude oil and energy prices are assumed to increase over the coming decade as global economic activity is restored," the Outlook commented.

Burgeoning demand for milk and meat in emerging economies like China and India also puts pressure on the amount of staple grains diverted to animal feed. Besides higher population growth rates - two percent per year in Africa - high urbanization trends and a large emerging middle class will drive demand for food.

The OECD/FAO projected that staples like wheat would cost 15 percent to 40 percent more from 2010 to 2019 than they did from 1997 to 2006.

Merritt Cluff, a senior FAO economist who led the Outlook research team, advised food aid agencies to "source food purchases locally where possible ... [so] that local rural communities receive higher payments for their commodities and stimulate production".

Numbers of hungry growing

''Further episodes of strong price fluctuations in agricultural product prices cannot be ruled out, nor can future short-lived crises''

The task of halving the number of hungry from 1990 levels by 2015, as required by the MDG, has grown - the world will have to help 73 million people out of hunger every year to reach the MDG target.

To help achieve this, Fen suggested that countries scale up investment in agriculture and social protection - a twin-track approach proposed by the UN task force in the wake of the 2006-08 crisis.

A study Fen conducted in China showed that for every $1,200 spent on agricultural research in 2000, 11 people were lifted out of poverty; in Uganda, for every additional $920 invested in agricultural research in 1999, 58 people were lifted out of poverty.

It paid to concentrate on country-led, bottom-up approaches to making people food secure by involving local governments and seeking broad participation; if countries could not afford agricultural reforms, the private sector should be brought in. Fen urged countries to experiment with new policies and expand successful pilot initiatives, saying: "Scale up the unusual."

The IFPRI report noted that in Kenya, where the Business Alliance Against Chronic Hunger launched its first pilot programme in 2009, more than 30 private companies had become members. According to local news reports the initiative had helped more than 2,000 farmers.

Worldwide, food markets remain volatile. In 2006-08 prices were "exacerbated by trade policies of exporters, creating higher import prices", said FAO's Cluff. No trading system could ensure that people would get "cheap food, but net importers deserve to have unrestrained access to markets on a predictable and fair basis".

Cluff suggested that developing countries put in place well functioning markets, and establish commodity exchanges to make "price discovery more transparent and fair".


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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