At least seven countries - almost all in Africa - are rated as highly vulnerable to rising food costs, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania, Niger, Zimbabwe, and Jordan and Moldova - which have all chalked up high levels of debt - could be forced to spend as much as two percent of their gross domestic product on importing food. Most of these countries are already struggling with chronic hunger, so soaring food costs raise the threat of political instability.
Their vulnerability was underlined on Tuesday by FAO director-general Jacques Diouf, who made an impassioned appeal to world leaders meeting in Rome, Italy, to make available US$30 billion a year to revitalise agriculture and avert future food conflicts.
Opening a three-day summit on the global food crisis, Diouf stressed the level of inequality in a world where the food wasted in a single country could cost $100 billion. "Against that backdrop, how can we explain to people of good sense and good faith that it was not possible to find $30 billion a year to enable 862 million hungry people to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food and thus the right to life?"
Financing agricultural programmes in the developed world properly "would make it possible definitely to lay to rest the spectre of conflicts over food that are looming on the horizon", Diouf said. "The structural solution to the problem of food security in the world lies in increasing production and productivity in the low-income, food-deficit countries."
But in real terms aid to agriculture fell by 58 percent from 1980 to 2005, while in 2006 subsidies worth $11 billion to $12 billion diverted 100 million tonnes of cereals from human consumption "mostly to satisfy a thirst for fuels for vehicles".
With food prices rocketing to their highest levels since the 1970s, Diouf called for "innovative and imaginative solutions", including "partnership agreements ... between countries that have financial resources, management capabilities and technologies, and countries that have land, water and human resources."
Ali Gurkan, the head of FAO's commodity markets, policy analysis and projection service, said he hoped urgent action would be taken on several possible measures to provide support to vulnerable countries - particularly those with already high levels of chronic hunger, and which imported most of their food and fuel. These measures could include a global mechanism to, at least, contain food prices and provide food or monetary aid.
Although the FAO recognises that strengthening social protection mechanisms for the urban poor is "especially important", the problem of how to roll out targeted feeding programmes in crowded cities is a ticklish one.
|How can we explain to people of good sense and good faith that it was not possible to find $30 billion a year to enable 862 million hungry people to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food|
"Of course, there is always the danger of food aid creating dependency, and should only be used as an emergency response. As a short-term response, farmers should also be provided with inputs, such as seed and fertiliser, to ensure production for the next season is up," said Gurkan.
Food prices in Gambia shot up by more than 50 percent within a year, said Bakary Trawally, Gambia's permanent secretary for agriculture. Rice is the staple food and the country imports most of its requirement. "But we are not looking for food aid; we want solid financial commitments of investment in our agriculture, and new technology to improve our yields - we can turn things around," he told IRIN.
Sharing the blame
The global food crisis has been triggered by a drop in production in many major grain-supplying countries, the high meat and dairy consumption in growing economies such as China and India, and shifts to biofuel crop farming. Although prices are expected to fall in 2009, they will remain high for the next decade, according to the FAO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which supports democracy and free market principles.
A recent report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticised multilateral agencies and aid donors - including the United States - for doing little to improve food production in Africa; it also blamed African governments for failing to invest in their farmers.
Although African leaders pledged in 2003 to devote 10 percent of government spending on agriculture, most of the continent's countries - with the exception of Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, and Burkina Faso - had not reached this goal as of 2005.
The gap between the average grain yield in sub-Saharan Africa, compared with the rest of the world's developing countries, has widened over the years, with productivity hitting only 40 percent by 2006. "For example, Zambia produces about 1,800kg of maize on a hectare of land, while China produces almost three times as much on the same amount of land," said the GAO report.
Besides lack of investment, high farm taxes are among the policies that penalise production and heighten food insecurity. For example, the GAO report noted, "Tanzanian farmers must pay about 55 taxes, levies, and fees to sell their agricultural products, equivalent to 50 percent of the price the farmers receive."
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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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