Revolt, Migrate or Die

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Last week, while attention was focused on New York and the U.N. conference to review the global development goals, a less prominent UN gathering took place in Rome. It was an emergency meeting, an emergency about food.

Concerns are growing that a surge in wheat prices could trigger a global food crisis. Therefore, the meeting of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was more immediately relevant for the world's poor than the poverty summit that the world media followed so closely.

Rising food prices, to the tune of a five-percent increase between July and August, and food riots that left 13 dead and hundreds injured in Mozambique have fueled fears that the world may be facing yet another food crisis, the second in three years. If the world wants to prevent another short-term crisis, let alone achieve the development goal of halving the proportion of hungry people in the world by 2015 leaders need to act now.

Neither the previous crisis nor a looming rerun are solitary events. A permanent food crisis has been unfolding for decades. According to the FAO, 925 million people continue to suffer from chronic hunger worldwide. Another food price spike, even one that doesn't reach the magnitude of 2007-08, would add to this immense number, likely pushing millions more into poverty and hunger. Like the previous crisis, the current uncertainty is caused by both immediate and underlying factors.

Short-term supply shocks to basic food commodities, like the one caused by Russian wildfires and the subsequent wheat export ban, have a ripple effect throughout fragile world food markets. At the same time, long-term factors continue to put pressure on global food prices. Rapid economic growth and changing diets in emerging economies, increasing demand for biofuels in developed countries, climate change, population growth, ineffective trading systems, and, above all, a severe decade-long underinvestment in agricultural research and development are all exacerbating an already dire situation.

Some of these factors are beyond the reach of immediate policy remedies. But others are not. The international community reacted to the 2008 food crisis with a proliferation of initiatives. The G8 L'Aquila Joint Statement on Global Food Security in July 2009 elicited pledges of $22 billion over three years to agriculture development. In response, a trust fund has been set up at the World Bank - the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program - to implement the pledges. In addition to contributing to the trust fund, the United States launched its own Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, called "Feed the Future." Other initiatives are underway at the UN, within the European Union, and at other multilateral organizations.

These efforts are a welcome start. However, the sheer multitude of initiatives runs the risk of creating policy and implementation incoherence if coordination is not improved. Even more importantly, donors are talking the talk while not always walking the walk. Some pledges have yet to turn into real money. So far, only the United States, Canada, South Korea, Spain, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have committed to the World Bank trust fund. This ambiguity has led some African officials to question the Fund's sustainability.

In the short term, solutions will require a renewed and serious commitment to the pledges already made. Developed countries need to pay up as promised, and soon. In the long run, solutions will mean tackling tough issues. This involves a serious attempt to reform agriculture subsidy and biofuels policies at home, as well as a renewed push to conclude stalled trade negotiations. The transatlantic partners, with their vast agricultural markets and advanced technical knowledge, should lead these efforts. The focus needs to be on both preventing further immediate shocks and beginning to establish a sustainable global food system. This means that European countries should commit to the trust fund now housed at the World Bank.

While some progress has been made, the world is not yet close to achieving the Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of hungry people by 2015. Getting there is not a charitable pursuit. As U.S. President Barack Obama explained last week at the New York summit, progress is very much in the security interest of the donor countries themselves. Without their commitment to food security, the alternatives for the hungry, pointedly outlined by the Josette Sheeran, the head of the World Food Programme, are to "revolt, migrate, or die."


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