The global economic downturn and financial crisis will understandably be the focus of much discussion at the Cannes summit of the Group of 20.
But it is crucial that the serious nature of these economic issues does not prevent the G20 leaders from addressing another problem affecting millions of people worldwide: hunger. With its presidency of the G20, France brought the issues of food security and food prices to the fore. This is a step forward but now action must be taken.
How big is the problem? The 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report notes that in a world that produces enough calories for each person, global hunger remains high enough to be characterized as “serious.” World hunger has declined over the past two decades—but not by much; still some one billion people suffer from the consequences of hunger today.
To be sure, all regions have made progress in reducing hunger since 1990. And some countries have made striking advances: Cambodia, Ghana, and Nicaragua, for example, have all improved their GHI scores substantially over the past two decades. But hunger remains unacceptably high in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where millions of people find their health, and even their lives, are threatened by lack of nutritious food.
In the past several years, the task of overcoming hunger has been complicated by the rise of a new global food economy—one in which food prices are no longer stable and predictable. Biofuel production, extreme weather, and continued population and income growth have all pushed food prices higher and contributed to price volatility.
It is easy to see why this is a problem for poor consumers, who find many nutritious foods, like fruits, vegetables, and meat, priced out of their reach.
But what about farmers? Shouldn’t higher prices be pushing up their profits and leading them to produce even more? In theory, perhaps. In reality, though, it often fails to work this way. Many small farmers in developing countries are net food consumers—that is, they buy more food in the market than they produce on their tiny plots. For these farmers, high food prices are a cost, not a benefit.
Moreover, the ups and downs of food prices mean that farmers have little idea what their produce will earn at harvest time. They may wish to invest in high-quality seeds and fertilizer—investments that could boost food production and, by increasing supply, help lower prices. The sad irony, however, is that such investments are often deemed too risky because prices are too unpredictable. If market prices sink below farmers’ production costs, their profits evaporate.
These vulnerable situations are witnessed on a daily basis by our teams in the field, which are, from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, from Haiti to India, dedicated to tackling them, both in emergency contexts and in the framework of development programs.
What does this mean for the heads of the G20 countries assembling in Cannes this week? These countries have already taken important steps to support agriculture and food security in developing countries. At the 2009 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, the G20 countries committed US$22 million over three years to improving food security through agriculture and other investments. And in June 2011, the G20 took several steps to help stabilize food prices by increasing the information available on prices and food stocks and by setting up emergency food reserves to prevent the worst consequences of food price spikes.
However, two years after the L’Aquila summit, the G20 does not appear to be on track to meet its commitments, and far more must be done to tackle the underlying causes of food price volatility: biofuels production, extreme weather and climate change, and especially lack of agricultural investment that can help resource-poor smallholders improve their productivity and build their resilience against natural shocks and market risks.
The developed countries represented at the G20 summit are struggling with serious and frightening problems, including unstable financial systems, lackluster economic growth, and high unemployment. But we should not forget that many developing countries face a future that looks even more dire—one in which a large share of people lack the food to live a healthy and productive life. It is time for the G20 to make good on its existing commitments and take aggressive action to stabilize the world food system.