The challenges for food security

Chairman of Action contre la Faim

©Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

What can we do in the years to come to ensure food security? In the opinion of Action contre la Faim, a number of avenues could help promote secure access to food for everyone. 

We have been told that the Earth now has a population of 7 billion—which is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. This growth in the world’s population brings home how absolutely necessary it is to adjust demand to the changing food requirements of populations. This is a major challenge. Many factors make it a particularly complex one: climate  change, which aggravates food insecurity; the volatility of food prices; land grabbing; “competition” from biofuels; lack of investment in subsistence farming; and, lastly, social factors such as conflicts, poverty, education and the status of women.

Faced with the immense task of ensuring food security, where do we start? First we need to establish priorities. It was with this aim in mind that in 2011 Action contre la Faim urged the G20 to adopt a number of essential measures on which the main specialist international non-governmental organisations all agree. What are these measures?

Agricultural output obviously needs to be developed, but in an appropriate manner in order to give priority to strengthening and supporting local and family-based agriculture. In poor countries, small farmers play an essential role in ensuring food security but are also the first victims of the adverse impact of the increased volatility of food prices. Today, alas, we can see that the Earth does not feed those who work the land. Small farmers account for 80% of the undernourished.

Several factors hold back the development and profitability of family-run farms, such as the disadvantaged position of women farmers and a lack of capital or access to land. While women account for 43% of the agricultural workforce in developing countries, they have only limited access to assets and opportunities. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), eradicating the inequalities between men and women would make it possible to reduce the number of people suffering from hunger by 100-150 million. Increased land grabbing in Africa allows countries that lack agricultural land to acquire their own capacities abroad, but often to the detriment of the local agricultural fabric.

Growth in agricultural productivity in Africa may continue apace, but who will it benefit? Could we contemplate seeing starving people living next to fields growing crops for foreign countries? There is a real risk that this could happen unless we introduce a genuine world governance of the needs and capacity of agricultural production, from the local to the international level.

Priority must therefore be given to promoting the development of family-run farms. However, such farms must nonetheless allow families to eat a balanced diet. In a word, nutritional impact must be placed at the centre of agricultural policies and we need to develop output in terms of not only quantity, but also quality and diversity. This can be done through technical and financial support for small farmers to allow them to diversify their crops. All this must be done in an environmentally friendly way. A growing number of small farmers cannot afford to purchase expensive inputs, which in addition are not particularly environmentally friendly. A potential therefore exists for developing small programmes aimed at ensuring the self-sufficiency of local farmers.

Another measure required is the fight against price volatility, which has a particularly adverse impact on the poorest members of the population who have to spend most of their income on feeding themselves. In 2009, the FAO estimated that the increase in food prices in 2007-08 left a billion people undernourished. It is therefore necessary to eliminate this problem by clamping down on financial speculation, notably by setting limits on prices and positions, together with restrictions on passive speculation.

Food reserves also need to be put in place. They allow help to be given to the most vulnerable and make it possible to counter the effects of price volatility. These systems must be created at the local, national and regional levels, although some problems, such as price volatility, are easier to address at the regional rather than national level.

Because ensuring food security in a given country or region can be a long, drawn-out process, alongside the measures already mentioned it is necessary to make use of social protection systems that act as “safety nets” during times of crisis. What do these safety nets against hunger consist of? They may have a nutritional component (e.g. micronutrients in the form of food supplements) and/or a financial component, such as monetary transfers. The latter may, by removing economic barriers, give populations access to an adequate nutritional diet. In terms of protection, some emerging economies have acquired significant experience and could play a major role in helping developing countries ensure good social protection.

At a time when the number of natural disasters is rising, it is also essential to strengthen the ability of people affected by climate change to respond to new conditions by supporting measures aimed at helping them adapt (e.g. agro-ecological measures applicable to degraded land, water management for small farmers who use rainwater). In tandem with these measures, but on a larger scale, governments must commit themselves to fighting climate change. What point is there in increasing yields in fragile areas if we are unable to reduce the number of so-called natural disasters that are destroying crops?

These were just some of the measures that Action contre la Faim called for in the build-up to the G20 in Cannes. Alas, there was nothing but disappointment the day after the summit, and Nicolas Sarkozy himself stated in his closing speech that he could understand why those who were fighting against hunger were not satisfied with the insufficient decisions taken by the G20.

While admittedly the G20 called for greater transparency in agricultural markets and pledged to improve their regulation in order to curb price volatility, it failed to reach agreement on mandatory measures. Leaders welcomed the creation of a Rapid Response Forum to “develop common responses in time of market crises”, but to date the latter has neither a mandate nor the means to take action. Mention was made of the “pivotal role” of official development assistance, however the G20 said nothing about the failure to meet the promises made to combat hunger: 22 billion dollars of aid promised over three years for food security and the fight against malnutrition at the G8 in 2009. Today, only 22% of this money has actually been committed.

Of course it was necessary to address the crisis in Europe. But we could have hoped that the 332 million people living in the euro zone would not overshadow the fate of the 925 million people still suffering from hunger worldwide. We did hear talk of a “recovery plan” in Cannes, but they were not talking about the challenges of food. The new Mexican presidency, doubtlessly aware of the weakness of the commitments entered into, has fortunately confirmed that it will put the issue of food security back on the agenda for the G20 in 2012. Action contre la Faim and its international partners remain mobilised.

Action contre la Faim 

See also: 

Food and Agriculture Organization to the UN 

©OECD Yearbook 2012

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