The world must feed its hungry


Financial Times (UK)
April 16, 2009

As we agonise about the recession, we should remember that humanity’s greatest economic problem is more basic: how to get enough food, a challenge still faced by millions.

This weekend the Group of Eight leading countries gathers in Italy for its first ever meeting of agriculture ministers. Their goal must be to move food policy up the global political agenda to a position where it is treated as the vital international security matter it is.

Last year’s record-high food commodity prices sparked riots as 100m people needed help from the World Food Programme. Thousands of desperate people in dozens of countries took to the streets in upheavals potentially far more destabilising than any reactions the financial meltdown has yet provoked. This danger will not go away.

Prices have come down, but remain higher than in decades. Even short disruptions cast long shadows: malnutrition in infancy can permanently impair children’s physical and cognitive development. Climate change, decades of declining investment in agriculture, and current policy mistakes conspire to make the crisis structural.

All countries share an interest in food security – their own, and for the sake of stability, that of others. But they must not confuse security with self-sufficiency. The world can produce enough food for all: as the economist Amartya Sen points out, famines are caused not by lack of food but by income inequality. The poor must get help – in ways that do not undermine food production.

Food exporters and importers alike need well-functioning international markets in food, which encourage efficient global production patterns. The responses to the crisis, sadly, have been in the opposite direction: export bans, land grabs of arable territory and secretive bilateral barter deals. These policies must stop. They are self-destructive and costly, and for poor countries ruinous. They do harm to others, as they undermine trading systems that benefit all.

Governments must provide global public goods. Research is needed to boost productivity, especially for African crops, and must not be hampered by opposition to genetically modified food. Mechanisms must be found to hedge against price volatility that discourages production even when prices are high.

The G8 has rightly invited important emerging countries to the table. But are agricultural ministers, who usually see their job as helping their own farmers, up to the task? Food security is the greatest threat to human well-being today. It should not be lost in quibbles about the branding of Parma ham.

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