Reaching grains to the global needy


The World Grain Forum that took place in St Petersburg June 6-7 is one in a series of high-level meetings devoted to food and agriculture this year. Such meetings -including the G8 agriculture ministers gathering in Treviso last April and FAO’s conference on How to Feed the World in 2050 next October in Rome show that powerful momentum is building for resolving outstanding food insecurity issues and establishing a new global agricultural order that can finally ensure that everyone on earth has enough to eat.

Despite a rapidly growing population, expected to top nine billion in 2050, and in spite of advancing climate change which threatens land and water resources in many parts of the world, this planet has the capacity to produce enough food for all its inhabitants.

And yet hunger is on the rise, with nearly one billion people -almost one person in six- hungry today. That is some 160 million more than in 1990-92, the base period for the World Food Summit target of reducing the number of hungry people by half, and represents almost a 20 per cent increase.

Much of that hike is due to higher food prices, which rose nearly 60 per cent between 2006 and 2008 while grain prices doubled in the same period.

At the same time the current global economic downturn is also contributing significantly to deeper poverty and hunger across the world.  Preliminary estimates indicate that more than 100 million could be dragged into hunger as a consequence.

Such upheavals are taking place in a global environment that is very different from just a few years ago. We have seen the world move from decades of cheap food to a period of high and more volatile food prices.

Also significant, agriculture has witnessed the emergence of important new players, including Russia which now produces as much wheat as the United States and has become the world’s fourth biggest exporter of cereals.

All of which makes it all the more important that we act now to bolster our collective food security --or risk a new and potentially even more dramatic food crisis in the future.
Grains provide the staple foodstuff for much of the world's population, and therefore will be central to any reform of the global food production and trade system. Hence the importance of the St Petersburg meeting, which considered some of the issues below.
Measures to reduce the negative effects of fluctuations in grains supply need to be put in place or reinforced.

A combination of risk management strategies, improved financial tools, early reaction mechanisms, and more effective emergency food aid response in crisis situations can go a long way towards preventing the suffering caused by sudden price spikes.

Also to be reviewed is the role of food stocks, which fell to historically low levels, in helping stabilise prices and providing a buffer against crop failures. The lesson we have learned is that we need to carefully weigh their relevance and how they should be administered in the framework of national and global food security.

Similarly, streamlined and equitable trade rules encouraging increased global exchanges are needed, with an end to trade-distorting policies.

Production subsidies in rich nations create market distortions and disincentives which discourage many developing countries from investing in their own agriculture. Export restrictions and taxes might ease situations locally but could contribute to price escalation in world markets.

In that context, a successful conclusion of the Doha Round of trade negotiations is essential. Without such an outcome, many of the past distortions and imbalances will continue, setting the scene for future crises.

Farmers have income

But to ensure world food security, it is important that farmers in both developed and developing countries have an income comparable to those earned by secondary and tertiary sector workers in their respective countries by using non-distortionary support measures.

Boosting investment in agriculture in the developing world — as called for by the high-level conference on world food security organised by FAO in Rome a year ago — is a key to the achievement of any sustainable global food security.

I am optimistic and believe that the momentum for change we are currently witnessing will soon lead to concrete and effective actions relegating hunger to history. It is an issue of peace and security in the world. (IPS)

(The writer is director-general of the FAO)

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