By John Thompson, STEPS Centre Food and Agriculture Convenor
In advance of the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Summit in New York on 20-22 September, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released new figures on the number of people worldwide who suffer chronic hunger in 2010. The latest estimates, which will soon be published in its annual State of Food and Agriculture report, show that there are 925 million hungry people on our planet – that’s roughly one in our six of us.
While this is a shockingly high number, the good news is that it is lower than the 1.023 billion people who were estimated to be hungry in 2009 and represents a decline in real terms of over nine percent.
Nevertheless, this figure is still significantly higher than the previous estimates before the global food crisis of 2007-8 and the global financial crisis which followed it.
There are two principal reasons for the decline in the total number of hungry people and both have to do with the reversal of two recent crises: (1) the reduction of food prices from their peak levels of 2007-8 and (2) the projected positive economic growth in developing countries in 2010. These trends contributed to increasing access to food for nearly 100 million people in the last year.
If, however, we look back over the past two decades, we can observe that (except for the current downturn) hunger has been on the increase. Between the early 1990s and 2007, we had periods in which food prices were low and economic growth was strong, but hunger kept rising.
What does this mean? It means that the improvement in the current hunger picture is only the result of the reversal of recent crisis effects. Furthermore, it means that there’s a fundamental structural problem with our food system that goes beyond temporary increases and decreases in food prices. That food problem is rooted in poverty and radically unequal distributions of income and assets, within and across countries, which influence both food production systems and food consumption patterns.
If we take the base period from which we track progress towards the MDG target on hunger – to reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger – we observe that the percentage of hungry people in the world has declined from 20 percent in 1990-92 to 16 percent today. However, if we are to hit the actual MDG target, which is to reduce the prevalence of hunger to 10 percent by 2015, we have less than five years in which to do it. According to the FAO, the region with the most undernourished people is Asia and the Pacific with 578 million, while Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the highest proportion of undernourished at 30 percent of the total population (239 million). Both regions have significant structural problems that lock people into poverty, limit their access to key assets, keep agricultural productivity low and make it difficult to reduce hunger on any significant scale.
These structural factors must be addressed before we are likely to see any dramatic decreases in either regional or global hunger figures, but this will require a much more concerted effort by the international community. And it is particularly urgent that we start now, because in the years ahead we will probably be seeing more of the turbulence we have experienced over the past few decades, as food and agricultural markets are expected to become more volatile in the medium term because of increases in extreme weather events (e.g., drought in Russia, floods in Pakistan) linked to climate change and the growing influence of non-commercial actors in food commodities markets.
When launching its new hunger data, the FAO called on governments to increase investment in agriculture, expand social protection programmes and enhance income-generating activities for the rural and urban poor. But individual governments alone cannot tackle the root causes of hunger and some greater coordination is needed at both regional and international levels. To be fair, some progress has been made on this since the recent food crisis, in the form of the G8 L’Aquila Food Security Initiative, the United Nations Secretary-General’s High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis and the G20 Pittsburgh Summit Partnership on Food Security, which led to the launch of the World Bank’s Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a multilateral financing mechanism which will allow the immediate targeting and delivery of additional funding to public and private donors to support national and regional strategic plans for agriculture and food security in poor countries.
Much of this appears to be a step in the right direction. But, as my colleague Erik Millstone and I observed in a recent paper we prepared for the UK Foresight Global Food and Farming Project (under review), if we are thinking long-term, we should also be envisioning a new structure for governing the food system through the creation of some kind of Global Food Security Authority (GFSA), which could be housed in the United Nations and implemented by an International Commission, working with different stakeholders, including governments, businesses, civil society and representatives of small-scale producers.
The GFSA would provide an institutional and legal framework to guide the governance of national, regional and international food systems and include binding commitments that seek to meet the four key dimensions of food security at all levels – sufficiency, safety, equitability and sustainability. Governments would, of course, have sovereignty to define their own food and agricultural policies, but they would also be held accountable for international human rights, including the right to food. Moreover, the GFSA would prioritise stabilising international supply and mandate strategic grain reserves for food security. Clear mechanisms would also need to be put into place to moderate commodity speculation and set floors and ceilings to guarantee fair prices for farmers. Further, the GFSA would mandate that trade and investment rules would provide national policy space to allow countries the flexibility to protect their own domestic food systems (within reasonable limits) and to invest in pro-poor agricultural research and development. It would also establish multi-stakeholder participation to develop multilateral and national investment programmes that promote rather than undermine local food sovereignty and small-scale agriculture that is productive, financially competitive and labour absorbing. Lastly, a Global Food Security Authority would link international economic policies to international human rights and environmental norms.
Realising this kind of vision is no small task, but if we are serious about reforming the global food governance system and meeting MDG 1 to as great a degree as possible, there is every reason to try. The burning question now is whether there is the political will to do so.