Hungry for food and for stability

Rome, Italy. October 17, 2011. Boosting investments in agriculture and food security, especially in poor and developing countries, is necessary to ensure the well-being of billions of people in an environment of high and volatile prices, said the Director-General Elect of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, José Graziano da Silva, in an article published on the occasion of World Food Day.

©Olivier Asselin

©Olivier Asselin

He also highlighted the benefits of boosting cash flows into economically stagnant rural communities. “Cash transfers and cash-for-work programmes work in the same way as rain on dry soil, allowing these communities to bloom once again,” said Graziano da Silva.

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Hungry for food and for stability

José Graziano da Silva

Rarely has World Food Day been celebrated amidst so much uncertainty. The highest levels of food price volatility seen in recent decades and the speed in which price fluctuations are occurring threaten both producers and consumers.

Following a path similar to those of other traded commodities, the FAO International Food Price Index has varied sharply since 2006, when a rise in prices led to a then record high in mid-2008. The index plummeted in the second semester of that year, but in 2009 resumed an upward movement that accelerated in 2010. It now seems to have reached a new but higher plateau.

When prices bounce up and down so often over a short period of time, it is very difficult for farmers to make the right decisions. If the signals aren’t clear, they either sow too much or invest too little.

Price volatility also hurts consumers, especially the poorest people who spend most of their money on food. Millions more families can be thrown into hunger, be exposed to sickness, unemployment, forced into debt and in taking children out of school, making it very difficult to return to a normal self-reliant life, even if food prices fall.

Today, in spite of the fact that enough food is produced for everyone to eat adequately, about one in seven persons in the world suffers from hunger because they cannot afford to buy the food they need for a healthy life.

The 2011 edition of the “State of the Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI)” argues that boosting investment in agriculture and food security, especially in poor and developing countries, is needed to ensure the well-being of billions of people in an environment of continued high and volatile prices.

Since the early 80’s the share of agriculture in official development assistance has dropped sharply, falling from 17% to about 5%. This decline has been mirrored in a similar fall in investments in agriculture and rural development by the governments of poor and developing countries.

If food prices remain high and less volatile, this will stimulate investment in agriculture. While the bulk of the resources will come from the private sector, this follows its own profit-seeking logic and its priority is not to end hunger. So, governments must also invest in expanding the supply of public goods, especially in rural areas in which there is a high concentration of food insecurity and poverty.

Public investment is needed, for instance, in agricultural research and extension, to enable small-scale farmers to take up new technologies adapted to their situations. There is also a big need for financing of rural infrastructure, such as safe water supplies and sanitation, roads, health services and schools, so that the people who supply our food can enjoy a reasonable standard of living.

Governments, however, need to complement support for agriculture and rural development with strengthening social protection programmes, aimed at ensuring that poor families can, at the very least, meet their basic food needs. These not only increase the resilience of vulnerable families to the impact of price volatility and other shocks, but, by translating their unmet food requirements into demand, stimulate local markets and production.

In rural areas, where there is hunger we usually find economically stagnant communities. They are like the dry vegetation of a parched field. Cash transfers and cash-for-work programmes work in the same way as rain on dry soil, allowing these communities to bloom.

The cycle of planting, harvesting and consuming is what spins the economic wheels of millions of small communities throughout the planet. At a national scale, expanded support for these processes – through credit, technical assistance, guaranteed markets for small-scale producers and better infrastructure, combined with social protection – will not only reduce hunger but also spur broad-based economic and social development.

The financial, economic and food crises that continue to destabilize our shared world call for new responses that bring together governments, civil society, the private sector and international institutions in a massive combined effort to ensure that, at the very least, nobody need ever again suffer from hunger. Without hunger, our world will be a happier and safer home for all its people.