Sustainable food for all

The agenda at Johannesburg will be wide and the issues interconnected, but one thing is clear: food security in developing countries must be a cornerstone of any notion of sustainable development. Mr Arnold offers a course of action.

When it was decided some years ago to hold the Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002, few would have predicted then that the southern African region would, by now, be in the grip of a food crisis. The scale of the crisis is frightening. The World Food Programme/FAO estimate that some 13 million people in the region are at risk due to food shortages and lack of income to purchase food. Imports of some 4 million tonnes are needed over the coming months. Enough food is available in the world, but even if massive imports were organised now, distributing them to those in need would be a race against the clock. If these imports do not take place in time, southern Africa faces a humanitarian crisis as bad as, or worse than, anything seen on the continent over the past three decades.

So while the Johannesburg summit would have wished to focus on the degree to which the world community has met the commitments it made in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, including such long-term issues as global climate change, environmental standards, and natural resource conservation, there could be, quite literally, a spectre at the feast – the spectre of millions of people starving in the region.

Any longer term notion of sustainability has, of course, to start with the present. Thus the short-run challenge is to get food into the region, through commercial imports and food aid, and get it to the poorest people who cannot afford to buy food. The longer run challenge is to ensure that the region, and indeed other parts of Africa, do not face recurrent crises of poverty and hunger. Many of the issues on the summit agenda are entirely relevant to meeting this longer run challenge.

One of the risks which the summit will face, in common with many other international gatherings, is that the agenda becomes so wide and the range of issues so inter-connected, that it is very difficult to reach an overall agreement which is practical and implementable.

But one thing is clear: longer term food security in developing countries must be a cornerstone of any notion of sustainable development. Using the experience gained by Concern Worldwide in the world’s poorest developing countries over more than 30 years, I would suggest there are five priority issues to be tackled: democracy and governance; food security; technology; international trade; and health, particularly HIV/AIDS.

Priorities for action

First of all, famines today do not occur in democratic countries. That is the key insight provided by Nobel prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, from his study of many of the famines that occurred during the 20th century. In a democracy, politicians and civil society should sound alarm bells and demand action long before a food crisis deteriorates into a famine. So a key element of any policy aimed at eliminating the obscenity of famine from the 21st century should be promoting accountable government, developing an active civil society and supporting an independent news media.

On the second priority, famine is, of course, the most extreme form of food insecurity. But hunger, in its chronic form, affects some 800 million people. Such malnourishment stunts physical and mental growth of children and acts as a major blockage to economic and social development.

If the number of people suffering from this “silent hunger” is to be reduced, changes in policies and resource allocation are necessary in many developing countries. Achieving food security depends on real action, not lip service. In many countries where agriculture is the major economic sector, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, appropriate support should be given to improve its productivity. This is a message both for developing countries and for donor agencies.

If this message is accepted, a number of very practical consequences follow, some of which may sound old-fashioned but which are, I believe, entirely relevant today. There needs to be more investment in developing better agricultural technologies, through well-focused research. This is Concern’s third priority. The little research that exists may be too often removed from the needs of ordinary farmers. Research is about improvement and so should aim at producing results that are relevant to ordinary peasant farmers, not outside suppliers or to suit theories of how markets could look.

The truth is, in many African countries, the national capacity for research is still limited, especially for something as unglamorous as agricultural research. Boosting that capacity is essential. We should look at what farmers are actually doing and help them to do it better!

Research should focus on improved cropping patterns and mixes which take account of the labour constraints on small farms. Customs and habits do exist and must be taken fully into account: that is what “ownership” of development programmes means. The AIDS crisis, through deaths and the need to care for existing sufferers, is reducing labour supply on farms and, consequently, food production. The consequences of this need to be taken into account in any applied research programmes.

However, most peasant farmers in the developing world are operating at levels of productivity and output well below what could be achieved even with current technologies. They don’t have the seeds, the fertiliser, the credit, the simple labour-saving technologies or, in many cases, the skills to increase productivity. Getting such inputs into the hands of the peasant farmers, and making an act of faith that they will then produce more of their own food, and some surplus, is vital. The debate on what role biotechnology might play in achieving longer term food security has tended, up to now, to generate more heat than light – and, given current realities, must appear somewhat irrelevant for most developing countries. It is, however, important to acknowledge that, in the longer term, biotechnology can make a contribution and that more attention needs to be paid to the legal and political framework within which it can do so.

The achievement of a fairer international trading system for agricultural and food products is a fourth priority of Concern, and it is one of the challenges facing the WTO’s Doha trade round. Professor Jagdish Bhagwati may well be right that developing countries have high trade protection themselves (see OECD Observer No. 231/232). But from a food security perspective, developing countries have right on their side when they demand greater access to the markets of developed countries and reduced levels of export subsidies and supports to rich country farmers.

International negotiations on agricultural trade have proved difficult in the past. There is little evidence that the current Doha round will lead to such a radical shift in trading relationships that the climate for improved food security within developing countries will be substantially improved. So developing countries, while continuing to negotiate the best deal possible, should probably take a coldly realistic view of the likely outcome and plan on the basis that say, over the next five years, it will be their own decisions, rather than a fairer international trading system which will affect their food security.

But one underlying issue that will make a big difference to food security is the HIV/AIDS crisis. This is our key fifth priority. In many African countries the disease is now at a point where it is having a direct and major impact on food production and food security. The importance of better nutrition in postponing related illnesses and prolonging life needs to be explicitly recognised.

If there is one cry from the heart which Concern would make to the decision makers of the world, it is this: the AIDS crisis has the capacity to devastate the African continent, and indeed other continents, so you must ACT NOW.

* Tom Arnold is chief executive of Concern Worldwide, an international NGO with its headquarters in Ireland. He is a former Assistant Secretary in the Irish Department of Agriculture and also worked with the European Commission. He is also a former Chairman of the OECD Committee of Agriculture.



Concern Worldwide Annual Report, 2001.

International Food Policy Research Institute Annual Report, 2001/02

© OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002


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