World Food Day: The State of Food Insecurity in the World and the Need for Coordinated Action

By John Thompson and Jim Sumberg

The three Rome-based agencies of the United Nations – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) – formally launched the 2012 edition of the annual State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) on World Food Day (Tuesday, October 16th). The report presents new estimates of undernourishment which show that progress in reducing hunger over the past 20 years has been better than previously believed, as the proportion of hungry people in developing countries has fallen from more than 23% in 1990-92 to less than 15% in 2010-12, bringing the estimated total number to 870 million in 2010-12.

Significantly, the new figures do not show an increase in global hunger following the recent food price crises of 2007-8 or the economic slowdown since 2009, let alone more recent food price increases. However, the report does find that from 2007 there has been ‘a significant slowdown’ in progress, bringing hunger reduction ‘essentially to a halt for the developing countries as a whole’. According to the report’s authors, given renewed efforts, it may be possible to reach the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger at the global level by 2015. However, the number of people suffering from chronic undernourishment is still unacceptably high, and eradication of hunger remains a major global challenge.

This year’s report also discusses the role of economic growth in reducing undernourishment, particularly growth in the agricultural sector. Sustainable agricultural growth is often effective in reaching poor hungry people because the majority of them live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for a significant part of their livelihoods. However, growth will not necessarily result in better nutrition for all. Thus, the SOFI authors argue that in order for economic growth to enhance the nutrition of the neediest, poor people must participate in the growth process and its benefits and use the additional income for improving the quantity and quality of their diets and for improved health services; and governments must use additional public resources for public goods and services to benefit the poor and hungry. Furthermore, this agricultural-led growth must be ‘nutrition-sensitive’ – i.e. it must result in better nutritional outcomes through enhanced opportunities for the poor to diversify their diets; improved access to safe drinking water and sanitation; improved access to health services; better consumer awareness regarding adequate nutrition and child care practices; and targeted distribution of supplements in situations of acute micronutrient deficiencies.

The SOFI report also makes the case for public sector investments in social protection – e.g. social safety nets (cash transfers, food/input vouchers, etc.), social insurance, complementary social welfare services, labour market policies – to accelerate hunger reduction. First, social protection can protect the most vulnerable in society who have not benefited from economic growth. Second, when properly structured, can contribute directly to more rapid economic growth through human resource development and strengthened ability of the poor, especially smallholder farmers, to manage risks and adopt improved technologies with higher productivity.

We think that the arguments and analysis in this year’s SOFI report are fairly robust, however the report falls short in its examination of ‘purposeful and decisive public action’ to create a supportive environment for pro-poor long-term economic growth. Here, we get the usual policy ‘wish list’ – i.e. provision of public goods and services for the development of the productive sectors, equitable access to resources by poor people, empowerment of women, design and implementation of social protection schemes and, above all, ‘an improved governance system, based on transparency, participation, accountability, rule of law and human rights’. Fair enough, but how?

The good news is that some of these thorny governance issues are being addressed in the latest draft of the Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition – a ‘dynamic framework’ which is supposed to provide a set of rules to ensure cooperation and policy coherence between countries and which will be submitted to the Plenary of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in mid-October. The CFS is a reinvention of a long-standing UN committee with a less than impressive track record. In its current incarnation, however, the CFS unites FAO, IFAD and WTO and creating a new space for civil society to engage actively in inter-governmental negotiations. Today, it is formally recognised by most institutions as the appropriate body to coordinate responses to the food and nutrition security challenges identified in the 2012 SOFI report. Nevertheless, the CFS still faces resistance of some governments to making the necessary reforms. In particular, the G-20, the group of the world’s most economically powerful nations, has staked its own claim to leadership of the global food security agenda by launching its own competing process. In June 2012, Mexico, as G-20 President, presented a commissioned, inter-agency report, Sustainable Agricultural Productivity Growth and Bridging the Gap for Small Family Farms, which reviewed progress made since the Cannes Declaration (when France held the G-20 Presidency in 2011) and called for investment in innovative research and technologies to help the developing world adopt more productive and sustainable agricultural solutions. The report argues that success depends heavily on a free flow of goods, ideas, knowledge, and services, including training services, across borders. Maintaining this free flow will require global policymakers to work together and ensure a transparent market and institutional environment.

Last month a follow-up meeting of G-20 chief agricultural science advisors was also held in Mexico. While there was a clear recognition that the domestic agendas of different countries have some significant areas of alignment, there was little agreement about fundamental food governance issues. Moreover, much of the emphasis was still on increasing production as the key route to reducing global food insecurity, rather than on addressing access and entitlements issues. This supply-side bias is linked to still deeply-rooted domestic priorities among the G-20 countries, particularly in difficult economic times, which encourage a focus on production increases at all costs.

Despite being a self-appointed body with little formal authority, the G-20 has sought to systematically bypass the reform agenda of the UN and CFS. Similar actions by the most powerful countries also recently derailed progress in major summits on climate change and trade, with potentially dire implications for agricultural development and food security. While the CFS was established under international law with formal governance systems and a clear mandate, with inclusive, if sometimes messy, procedures that bring different agencies and stakeholders to the table, the G-20 has none of these features. It is an invitation-only club of some of the world’s most powerful nations. The emerging and developing countries in the group have no mandate to speak for larger blocs of countries, as is the case in other international bodies such as the UN and the World Trade Organization. And because the G-20, as an extension of the G-8, has no formal institutional structure, it lacks even the transparency and accountability of the G-8, let alone that of the World Bank and other institutions where civil society has won important democratic reforms.

Much of the G-20’s work is hidden from public view. Its assertion of leadership in development finance, including a response to the global food crisis, undermines accountability in the international system, and weakens the efforts of the international organisations and inter-agency processes that should be addressing these problems. Furthermore, too much of the G-20’s food security agenda is focused on addressing the mismatch between supply and demand in international markets – as if global hunger were the result of physical scarcity at the aggregate level – while comparatively too little attention has been paid either to the imbalances of power in food systems or to the failure to support small-scale farmers to feed themselves, their families, and their communities.

Much of the G8’s work is hidden from public view. Its assertion of the role of leader in development finance – including in the response to the global food crisis – undermines accountability in the international system, and weakens the efforts of the international organisations and inter-agency processes that should be addressing these problems. What is more, too much of the G20’s food security agenda is focused on addressing the mismatch between supply and demand in international markets while too little attention is paid either to the imbalances of power in food systems, or to the failure to support small-scale farmers to feed themselves, their families and their communities.

Looking ahead, if we are to address the food security needs of the 870 million people who remain chronically undernourished, the CFS and its emerging Global Strategic Framework holds out the best hope of a new era of cooperation and coordinated action. However, even in the CFS the chronic structural issues – poverty, political marginalisation, inadequate access to productive resources, finance and markets, etc. – that are so central in the daily creation and re-creation of cycles of food insecurity and undernutrition are not on the agenda. We should all be very clear: until these underlying structural issues are put at centre stage, better cooperation and coordination will do little to address food insecurity and undernutrition in ways that do justice to the spirit and aspirations of World Food Day.

Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World is out now in paperback, edited by James Sumberg and John Thompson
The book is part of the STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability book series.

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