Handling or not Handling the Food Crisis

Jaques Diouf1

In 2008 we had before us a world food crisis that had tragic social and political consequences in different continents, with riots and deaths that endangered world peace and security. Those sad events are, however, but the chronicle of disaster foretold. In 1996, at the Food Summit, 112 heads of state and government and the representatives of 186 members of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) solemnly pledged to reduce by half the number of hungry in the world by the year 2015 and adopted a programme to achieve that target. But already in 2002, we had to convene a second world summit to draw the international community's attention to the fact that resources to finance agricultural programmes in developing countries were decreasing, instead of rising. With such a trend, the summit target would not be reached in 2015, but in 2150. An Anti-Hunger Programme with financial requirements estimated at US$24 billion per year had been prepared for that meeting. Global food production must double to feed a world population currently standing at 6 billion and expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050.

Today, the facts speak for themselves: from 1980 to 2005, aid to agriculture fell from US$8 billion (2004 basis) in 1984 to US$3.4 billion in 2004, representing a reduction in real terms of 58 per cent. Agriculture's share of official development assistance (ODA) fell from 17 per cent in 1980 to 3 per cent in 2006. The international and regional financial institutions saw a drastic reduction in resources allocated to the activity that constitutes the principal livelihood of 70 per cent of the world's poor. In one telling case, the loan portfolio to agriculture of one institution plummeted from 33 per cent in 1979 to 1 per cent in 2007. In cooperation with the FAO, the developing countries did, in fact, prepare policies, strategies and programmes that, if they had received appropriate funding, would have ensured world food security.

Following a meeting of African experts in December 2001 in Rome, the ministers for agriculture met at the FAO Regional Conference for Africa in Cairo in February 2002, and again in Maputo just before the July 2003 African Union Summit. On that occasion, the heads of state and government adopted the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and its companion documents prepared with the support of the FAO (African Union, 2003). The programme requires an investment of US$25 billion per year for water control, rural infrastructure, trade capacity, increased crop production and reduced hunger, agricultural research and the dissemination of technology, animal production, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture. In this context, 51 African countries, with the support of the FAO, prepared national medium-term investment programmes (NMTIPs) and bankable investment project profiles (BIPPs).

The regional economic communities - the Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine (UEMOA), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) - have, with the FAO's support, also prepared regional food security programmes that focus on intra-regional trade and the World Trade Organization (WTO) sanitary and phytosanitary standards, based on the rules established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and FAO for consumer protection in the framework of the Codex Alimentarius2 and the International Plant Protection Convention (FAO and WHO, 1963).

Following implementation of the pilot phases of national and regional food security programmes in the countries of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), and Central and South America, the Ibero-American Summit approved, in November 2006, in Montevideo, Uruguay, the Initiative called Hunger-Free Latin America and the Caribbean by 2025 (FAO, 2006). Similar regional programmes were prepared, in cooperation with the FAO, in Central Europe and Central Asia for the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation and the Economic Cooperation Organization.

Plans, programmes and projects - well and good - thus do exist to address food security, even though they may require further refinement and updating. But sadly, the international community only reacts when the media beams the painful spectacle of world suffering into the homes of the wealthy countries.

Based on world agricultural statistics and the projections that the FAO is responsible for preparing, already in September 2007, I alerted public opinion to the risks of social and political unrest due to hunger. On 17 December 2007, to avoid jeopardizing the 2008 agricultural season, I launched an appeal for the mobilization of US$1.7 billion in grants to enable the farmers of poor countries to have access to the fertilizer, seeds and animal feed that had risen in price by 98, 72 and 60 per cent, respectively. All of this was in vain. Despite broad press coverage, and correspondence to the member states and financial institutions, only a few countries, such as Spain, offered their immediate support to agricultural production. I would like to pay tribute to those countries which did assist us.

It was only when the destitute and those excluded from the banquets of the rich took to the streets to voice their discontent and despair that the first reactions in support of food aid began to emerge.

The causes and consequences of the present crisis have been explained at length, so I shall not return to them. What is important today is to realize that the time for talking is long past. It is time for action.

The United Nations Secretary General set up and chairs the Task Force of the United Nations system, the Bretton Woods institutions and other international organizations to bring a coordinated response to the food crisis (UN, 2008), of which I am the vice chair. The Comprehensive Framework for Action prepared by the task force provides guidelines on the needs that will be specified, country by country, with the assistance of the local representatives of the FAO, the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Bank, in cooperation with the governments. In connection with this, on 29 April 2008 in Berne, the Secretary General of the United Nations presented to the press the communiqué approved by the United Nations Chief Executives Board (CEB) for coordination on the immediate need to mobilize the necessary resources and deal with the food crisis. Of course, there was a pressing need, despite escalating prices, to maintain the volume of food aid for 88 million people. We thank the countries that contributed so generously to meet the required US$755 million in this regard.

But there are 862 million people in the world who do not have adequate access to food. They need to enhance their living conditions in dignity, working with the resources of today's generation. They need high-yield seeds, fertilizer, animal feed and other modern inputs. They cannot continue to toil as in the Middle Ages, under conditions of uncertainty and exposure to the whims of the weather. Investment is therefore needed in rural infrastructure, especially for water control with irrigation and drainage, considering, for example, that 96 per cent of arable land in sub-Saharan Africa depends upon rainfall. They need storage facilities to avoid harvest losses that can amount to 40 to 60 per cent for certain crops. Rural roads are essential to bring in modern factors of production and enable harvests to reach domestic and regional markets at competitive prices.

The current food crisis goes beyond the traditional humanitarian dimension, which has an eminently ethical foundation. This time it also affects the developed countries. Rising inflation is 40 to 50 per cent the result of higher food prices. In a context of high and accelerated growth of gross domestic product (GDP) of the emerging countries, we must seek sustainable and viable global solutions that will narrow the gap between global food supply and demand. If we do not urgently take the courageous decisions that are required in the present circumstances, the restrictive measures taken by producer countries to meet the needs of their populations, the impact of climate change and speculation on future markets will place the world in a dangerous situation. Whatever the extent of their financial reserves, some countries might not find food to buy.

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. This calls for innovative and imaginative solutions, besides official development assistance. Partnership agreements are needed between countries that have financial resources, management capabilities and technologies, and countries that have land, water and human resources. Only in this way will it be possible to ensure balanced international relationships for sustainable agricultural development.

The challenges of climate change, bioenergy, transboundary animal and plant diseases and agricultural commodity prices can only be met through frank dialogue based on objective analysis devoid of partisan and short-term interests.

Yet, obligation to truth compels me to note certain facts:

• Nobody understands how a carbon market of US$64 billion can be created in the developed countries to offset global warming, while no funds can be found to prevent the annual deforestation of 13 million hectares, especially in the developing countries whose tropical forest ecosystems act as carbon sinks for some 190 gigatonnes of CO2.

• Nobody understands how US$11 billion to $12 billion in subsidies in 2006 and protective tariff policies have had the effect of diverting 100 million tonnes of cereals from human consumption, mostly to satisfy a thirst for fuel for vehicles.

• Nobody understands how in a time of globalization of trade, with the notable exception of avian influenza that could lead us to human calamity, there has been no significant investment in the prevention of Newcastle disease; foot and mouth disease; Rift Valley fever; contagious bovine pleuropneumonia; the pests of small ruminants; bluetongue disease; African swine fever; tropical bont tick and the new world screwworm; but also wheat stem rust, which since 1999 has spread from Uganda to Iran and could reach India, Pakistan and China; the fruit fly; and finally desert locusts, a scourge familiar since the time of the Pharaohs.

• But, above all, nobody understands how, first, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have created a distortion of world markets with the US$372 billion spent in 2006 on supporting their agriculture; second, that in a single country food wastage can amount to US$100 billion annually; third, that the excess consumption by the world's obese costs US$20 billion annually, to which must be added indirect costs of US$100 billion resulting from premature death and related diseases; and, finally, that in 2006 the world spent US$1200 billion on the purchase of arms.

Against this backdrop, how can we explain to people of good sense and good faith that it is not possible to find US$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? It is resources of this order of magnitude that would make it possible definitively to lay to rest the spectre of conflicts over food that are looming on the horizon.

The problem of food insecurity is a political one. It is a question of priorities in the face of the most fundamental of human needs. It is the choices made by governments that determine the allocation of resources.

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