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Banishing Starvation

VIENNA – Of the world’s almost seven billion people, about one billion are starving, owing to a long list of unfortunate local events and circumstances, together with steadily increasing demand, unpredictable weather patterns, and poor financial management. And food shortages could grow much worse, as world population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050 or earlier.

But, with the right programs, we can produce enough food for everyone. Indeed, by taking the right actions now, we can eradicate starvation. To meet expected demand over the next 20 years, global food supplies must increase by an estimated 50%. So we need sustainable agriculture-led growth to increase supplies and keep prices affordable while also boosting the incomes of poor farmers in developing countries.

This can be achieved through a program for subsistence farmers that not only improves productivity, but also reduces weather dependency and provides simple financing instruments to encourage investment in new technologies and equipment, increased land ownership, and easier access to local markets. Lifting subsistence farmers out of their precarious position would be equivalent to halving the number of hungry people.

But it’s a program that can be achieved only if international organizations like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) work hand-in-hand with national governments and with private donors and partners. The European Union and other developed countries are already intent on tackling the problem of global food security, and could easily tailor their own schemes to become part of this wider program.

For example, the EU supports the growth of agriculture and rural development through two types of instruments. Geographical initiatives, like the European Development Fund (EDF), support implementation of agricultural policies in the African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries (the Development Cooperation Instrument provides similar support in Latin America, Asia, and South Africa ). Such programs already add up to significant spending – the current EDF, which runs from 2007-2013, has set aside more than €1 billion to support agriculture, rural development, and food security in Africa alone.

The second type of instrument is emergency funding to deal with unforeseen events, such as natural disasters, market breakdowns, and political instability. The EU’s ad hoc €1 billion Food Facility, created in 2008 for rapid response to soaring food prices in developing countries, is a good example. Its objectives also include boosting   agriculture in the short to medium term in selected countries.

As part of an FAO project in Burkina Faso , the EU’s Food Facility has helped to provide high-quality seeds to 100,000 vulnerable farmers, benefiting roughly 700,000 people amid the growing food crisis in the Sahel region. With EU support worth €18 million, this operation will improve food security for around 860,000 rural households, or more than six million people.

Similarly, two Food Facility projects in Mozambique , worth a total of €2.5 million, are benefiting almost 50,000 farmers and nearly 300,000 rural families by increasing agricultural production, improving conditions for commercializing products, and addressing food security issues that affect rural households.

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Beyond these financial instruments, we need to improve on the status quo by investing in the research and development needed to modernize agriculture and reduce the risk of crop failures. Better, environmentally sustainable livestock production systems need to be developed, and we must boost investment in capacity-building, services training, market access, and efforts to strengthen supply chains.

Equally important is research into the most effective measures to combat cross-border animal and plant diseases. Agriculture, after all, must be viewed in the context of the wider eco-system, which also means developing improved methods for conserving resources such as soil, forests, and fisheries.

To tackle global food security successfully, we must change the way we treat rural development, which requires adopting a much more bottom-up approach. Again, I think that the EU is leading the way in developing countries with development policies that promote broad-based rural economic growth by boosting primary production and increasing its efficiency. Indeed, by promoting agricultural practices and technologies that are environmentally sustainable and raise rural incomes, these policies also stimulate rural non-farm activities.

But problems at the top of the food system must be addressed as well. An important step would be better regulation of global financial markets in order to end the derivatives speculation that forces food prices up. Moreover, the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round of global trade negotiations desperately needs to be concluded, and the EU has made a number of positive moves in this direction by proposing vast changes to its export subsidies regime.

European spending on export refunds has declined considerably in recent years – from 30% of agricultural expenditure in the early 1990’s to less than 1% today (if rural development is excluded). This huge drop results from successive reforms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, owing to commitments made by the EU to the WTO and to other developments on world markets. Last year, Europe ’s spending on export refunds dropped by more than 40% from 2009, to just €400 million.

With more and more subsistence farmers being driven off their land by pressures far beyond their control, we need to find better ways to balance the needs and rights of rural and urban populations. Unless we begin to do so, succeeding generations will fail to realize an environmentally sustainable world where people live in dignity.

Franz Fischler is a former European commissioner for agriculture, rural development, and fisheries, and was also Austria ’s agriculture minister.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Europe’s World, 2011.

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