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Feeding the world

José Graziano da Silva, director general, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

From "The G20 Mexico Summit 2012: The Quest for Growth and Stability,"
edited by John Kirton and Madeline Koch, published by Newsdesk Media Group and the G20 Research Group, 2012
To download a low-resolution pdf, click here.

Food security is a vital issue for everybody, but policies designed to assist small farmers have a broader effect in tackling poverty among some of the world's most vulnerable communities

When the G20 leaders sit down in Los Cabos, food security and poverty reduction will be among the top issues they will discuss, alongside the financial and economic crisis, climate change and sustainable development. They are closely linked.

Food security is a common thread in the pursuit of sustainable development. Development cannot be sustainable if people are left behind. And, even today, the right to food – a basic human right – is still absent from the lives of 925 million people. A few days from the start of the Rio+20, the relationship between food security and sustainable development should always be at the front of the mind.

Hunger is a global challenge. Despite much progress, there is still a lot of ground to cover. The Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS), launched by the G20 in response to rising and volatile food prices and their impact on poor populations worldwide, is an example of action that can be taken at the international level.

However, international actions must be complemented by others at the local level, because people do not eat in global markets. People eat in their homes, in their cities and their villages. It is on this turf where the fight against hunger is fought.

A revamped global governance system for food security is necessary to coordinate ongoing efforts and link them to the local level, transforming the international discussions into quick and effective action to tackle emergencies and advance to the long-term goal of food security for all.

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS), recently reformed to include representatives of civil society, the private sector and a range of international agencies and research institutions, plays this coordinating role. It can connect global and national action. An example of this is the recent endorsement of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. The CFS-led negotiations resulted in this milestone that will improve how countries govern access rights to land, fisheries and forest resources.

The dangers of climate change

Why is this important? Because 75 per cent of the world's poor and hungry people live in rural areas and are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Many are subsistence and small-scale farmers with low productivity rates who depend on the food they produce either to feed themselves and their families or to earn a living. That is why assisting small-scale farmers is key to food security: this way, they are better prepared to support themselves and they increase food availability in the poor, rural areas of developing countries.

Eradicating hunger would make everyone richer. A child who is properly nourished can learn more, lead a healthier life and grow up to be more productive. This is why investing in agriculture and nutrition is good for business and good for governments. Food security is not simply an expense. Agriculture can drive socially and environmentally sustainable economic growth. Adequate nutrition reduces costs in health, education and social security.

The world's population is estimated to grow from today's seven billion to more than nine billion people by 2050. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates agricultural production will need to grow by 60 per cent over the next 40 years to meet the demand, exerting significant pressure on the world's resources. But this increase will only be necessary if people continue farming the way they farm and eating the way they eat.

There are other solutions. At the global level, one-third of all the food produced is lost or squandered. Europeans and North Americans waste 115 kilos of food per capita. People in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia throw away 11 kilos a year. If these amounts could be reduced by 25 per cent, 500 million people a year would have food, with no need to produce a kilo more than today.

Improved food and nutrition education can reduce waste and promote healthier diets. Moreover, malnutrition also shows in the shape of overweight and obesity that affects more than one billion people worldwide.

Changing farming methods

There is also the way people farm: intensive use of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides has taken a heavy toll on natural resources. Farming-as-usual is no longer sustainable. The world needs a paradigm shift to sustainably intensify agricultural production, helping farmers improve productivity while protecting natural resources. FAO calls this the ‘Save and Grow' approach. It is based on traditional knowledge and local ecosystems and focuses on smallholders, who tend to have the least access to resources, technology and training and lower yields than large-scale producers.

Conservation agriculture initiatives by FAO in collaboration with national partners are proving to be beneficial for small farmers in Africa and Asia, as they have been in South America. In Tanzania, a two- to threefold increase in crop yields has been achieved over a five-year period, leading to improved income and livelihoods.

Since 2008, more than 600,000 small farmers across Africa have adopted ‘no-tillage' farming practices, offering a range of productivity, economic and environmental benefits. But environmental virtue alone is not enough – farmers must see tangible benefits in terms of higher yields and reduced costs. With the right management those benefits can be delivered, as seen in many cases worldwide.

By supporting small-scale farmers, the world can produce food and increase the food supply where it is most needed – in developing countries. This effort can have even greater benefits when it is successfully combined with actions to improve access to food by the most needy. In different parts of the world, innovative ways link local production with consumption through cash-for-work and cash-transfer programmes. Such efforts help vulnerable families become more resilient. Moreover, by translating unmet food requirements into demand, they help to stimulate local production.

New ways to cooperate and learn from each other are needed, in both developed and developing countries. There is a wealth of knowledge to share and to learn from.

The world must make an effort to achieve food security as fast as possible. It is a possible goal, but it cannot be achieved by FAO or any government on its own. The private sector, civil society, research institutions and academia must all come together as a whole to eliminate hunger for every man, woman and child.

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