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food and agriculture > features > greener and leaner - how the west could stave off disaster

Greener and leaner - how the west could stave off disaster

Posted: 02 Jun 2008

The world food crisis is a tragedy frequently and passionately foretold. For years, food experts warned that chronic under-investment in agriculture in developing countries, by governments and donors alike, would one day spell disaster. Julian Borger of The Guardian reports:

That day has dawned, and in the run-up to this week's food summit in Rome, the international community is talking hopefully of a "second green revolution" and rushing to reverse two decades of neglect.

Girls sell cassava flour at roadside market, Nigeria. Photo: Piero Tartagni/IFAD
Girls sell cassava flour at roadside market, Nigeria.
© Piero Tartagni/IFAD
In 1986, 20 per cent of foreign aid spent by rich countries was devoted to agriculture in the developing world. By 2006, that share had shrunk to less than 3 per cent.

"It was about fashion, really," Duncan Green, Oxfam's head of research said. "If you wanted high increases in growth, you didn't go into agriculture. But the thing they missed is that a percentage growth in agriculture is much more effective in dealing with poverty than a percentage growth in the oil industry."

The leaders of poor countries performed no better than the donors. African governments, more wary of the political clout of their urban citizens, currently spend less than 5 per cent of their budgets on supporting farming and the rural communities, which are home to the poorest two-thirds of their populations.

In the 2003 "Maputo declaration" African leaders agreed to boost their rural spending to 10 per cent by 2012, but by the time the crisis struck in earnest, there was little sign of that goal being achieved.

Rice field with farmer
Rice field with farmer. Photo � Bharat Bhushan
Dumping of excess crops by the West throughout the cheap-food era, combined with the market-oriented World Bank structural adjustment policies of the 1980's and 1990's that closed down government marketing boards that guaranteed price stability, served to squeeze much of the remaining life out of African farming.

Much of the talk in Rome will be about making up for lost time and ploughing donor money into agriculture, particularly African agriculture. But there is now a crisis to deal with and more than a million more hungry people to feed than last year, at higher cost. There is also the creeping disaster of climate change with competition for land and resources from biofuels and the thorny problem of GM crops. The crisis will require a complex package of policy responses over the short to long term. These are the some of the options the leaders in Rome will be mulling over.

Short term

Food aid
The World Food Programme has managed to raise all its $755m (�382m) appeal to maintain its emergency feeding programmes, largely thanks to a surprise Saudi donation last week of $500m. But WFP officials warn that the goalposts are constantly shifting. Rising prices add millions more to the ranks of the hungry, expecially in towns.

Furthermore, the WFP only reach about 80 million of the most desperate, mostly refugees from conflicts and natural disasters. There are 700 million more chronically hungry people scattered around the world, mostly in rural areas of developing countries. The real challenge is to begin to help them through rural development, if the UN goal of halving the numbers of the world's hungry by 2015 is to be met.

Seeds and fertiliser
As well as needing food to survive, the rural poor urgently need help planting next season's crops if there is to be any end to the crisis. Millions have been forced to eat next season's seeds to survive and the price of fertiliser (largely dependent on oil) has risen sixfold in some regions over the course of a year.

Export bans
The organisers of the Rome summit at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) are seeking agreement from world leaders not to respond to food shortages and high prices by stopping crop exports. The export bans of the past few months drove prices even higher and increase market volatility. Kostas Stamoulis, an FAO expert, said: "One of the objectives is to try to hammer out a coordinated response."

Medium term

Free trade
Gordon Brown argues that the US and the EU can contribute most by signing up to the "Doha round" of trade liberalisation talks, lowering farm subsidies in America and undoing some of the protectionism of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy. That should help poor farmers in the long term, but its direct impact could be to raise food prices in the developing world, as producers focus on western markets.

The food crisis has triggered a backlash against plant-derived fuels which were only last year being hailed as an answer to global warming. With over 40 per cent of American maize being used to make ethanol, there is clearly a clash of interests. The critics say a tank full of fuel for a big western car uses as much corn as a family would eat in a year. But a FAO discussion paper to be presented in Rome cautions against over-reaction and a moratorium on biofuels. It argues instead for a set of international standards that would assess the impact of biofuel cultivation on food security.

Long term

Agricultural investment
There will be a lot of emphasis on rebuilding agriculture in the developing world, particularly in Africa. Experts believe yields there can be increased up to fourfold with the right help. IFAD's Mohamed B�avogui says that 40 per cent of Asian agriculture is irrigated, compared to 4 per cent in Africa. The average Asian farmer uses 110 kg of fertiliser a year. The average African uses just 4kg. Just rebuilding rural roads could make a big difference. At least a third of the crops in an average African season are lost after the harvest, largely because farmers cannot get them to markets on time.

GM crops
Agriculture experts at the UN and in developing countries do not expect GM crops on their own to radically improve yields, but nor are they ready to write them off when they can offer resistance to drought and pests. The main trouble, they argue, is that almost all the research has been devoted to developing crops for rich countries in the northern hemisphere.

In a looming age of scarcity of water, energy and food, any agricultural renaissance will have to be frugal. "If we're going to do a new green revolution for the 21st century, it will have to be much greener than the last one," said Alex Evans, a food expert at the Chatham House thinktank. Campaigners also argue that the world cannot feed its population if China, India and other emerging economies want to eat like the West. The only long-term solution, they argue, is rethinking western lifestyles and expectations.

� Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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