How can the G8 solve hunger?

By Ian Scoones.

Next weekend the leaders of the G8 gather in Northern Ireland for  their annual summit. This year it’s hosted by the UK, and Prime Minister  David Cameron has been highlighting hunger and malnutrition as a major  priority, together with the Enough Food for Everyone If…campaign. Top issues are transparency around tax and land deals, and  tackling undernutrition in the developing world. A pre-summit summit and  rally in Hyde Park were held in London last weekend to discuss the  issues.

Africa and agriculture were at the centre of the debate, and the themes touched on many central to the work of the Future Agricultures Consortium research programme. But questions are being raised about the approaches  being taken. Have the wider questions of policy and politics been taken  into account? Will the silver bullets of agricultural and nutrition  interventions really work in practice? Are the solutions to the scandal  of continued hunger and child malnutrition technical, or actually more  social and political?

Tim Lang of City University in London was quoted in the UK Sunday newspaper the Observeras commenting: “We’ve had many summits talking about hunger…, but not enough has happened to change the food system. My worry is that this one is shifting policy focus away from the complex picture of how food connects land, health, power and ecological damage. Technical fixes like food supplements may appear sensible, but they do little to address the systemic problems…. What I want to see is political leaders accepting that their task is to recalibrate the food system entirely. We have to recivilise food capitalism and recalibrate markets.”

In other words, we need to tackle unequal policy processes around food systems, North and South. This theme was central to our work on the political economy of seed systems, highlighting that solutions lay less in new technologies, but in institutional and political issues around ensuring access to seed technologies. Equally, Future Agricultures research on land deals shows how large areas of land are being acquired, with little accountability. Making land deals more transparent is definitely a good idea, but exactly what this will mean in practice is unclear, as Anna Locke and Andy Norton describe in a recent blog post for Future Agricultures and ODI. Equally, vitamin enriched sweet potato – a product launched again this past weekend – will help tackle deficiencies, but, as Sally Brooks has shown, biofortification – the breeding of nutrient-enriched crops – may not be the easiest, cheapest or most appropriate solution to undernutrition.

The G8 summit is expected to give more impetus to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, launched at last year’s summit by the US. This is an alliance of governments, private sector players and others, committed to delivering new technical and market based agricultural and nutrition interventions, in a number of focus countries. But, as I wrote just over a year ago, there are concerns about the role of large, western agribusiness concerns in the New Alliance, and how these big players may exclude others, including local private sector players, as well as Africa-led policy initiatives, such as the African Union’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). This concern is being raised again by NGOs, activists and others.

Of course the G8 is an exclusive club that does not involve the new emerging powers, all increasingly influential in Africa. Looking at China and Brazil’s role in African agriculture, it is clear that they need to be at the table too.

As the summit nears, a greater emphasis on the politics of policy at global, regional and national levels is needed. This requires attention to the complex, often slow and difficult process of effecting change. Unfortunately, quick fixes and silver bullets never work.