If the world is to succeed in
alleviating poverty and providing the necessary framework for
sustainable development on the planet, there is no more pressing
need than ensuring the supply of affordable food for all people. Not
only has the world failed to adequately address the issue of food
security, but the situation threatens to take a turn for the worse
in the near future.
There are two keys to tackling this
problem, enhancing production, particularly in Africa and ensuring
that trade in food flows unhindered from the lands of plenty to the
lands of little. Without immediate action in these two areas, there
is a risk that hunger will become even more widespread, with many
million more lives at stake.
Lately, the spectres of famine hang
menacingly over the Horn of Africa, with millions of people in
Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti left vulnerable. In Somalia alone,
15 million people, nearly half the population of the country, went
The irony is that in the 1970s,
Africa was a net exporter of food and such crises were far less
common. Yet within 20 years, Africa had become a net food importer.
The reason for this is simple. Even
at a time of great productivity gains globally, African agricultural
production has failed to keep pace with the growing population.
Between 1960 and 2008, corn
production yields doubled from 2.5tn to five tonnes a hectare. Yet,
in Africa, yields have remained stuck at under two tonnes per
hectare. Milk production for each cow in Africa is a quarter of the
Hunger and malnutrition simply
cannot be tackled unless supply is improved, and that means boosting
yields in Africa. African governments need to reassess policies that
have discouraged farmers from staying on the land. Instead, farmers
should be offered incentives to use new methods and technologies to
It can be done. One needs only to
look at Brazil to see that African agriculture can be turned around.
Just 30 years ago, Brazil was a net importer of basic foodstuffs.
Today, thanks to sound policies and enhanced investment in research
and development, Brazil is among the world's top exporters of wheat,
corn, chicken, beef, and sugar.
The burden must not fall on Africa
alone. The developed world also has a role to play by curbing the
use of trade distorting subsidies that result in food surpluses
being dumped on third country markets.
Low levels of African agricultural
productivity have kept the continent on the sidelines of global
agricultural trade and helped create a situation today in which a
handful of countries dominate production and export. In a world of
nearly 200 countries, there are only between five and 10 major
exporters of cereals. Rice, the staple food for most of humanity, is
a case in point. Roughly 70pc of rice production comes from five
countries including China and India.
With production and export in the
hands of so few countries, an event in any one of them that curtails
grain supply on the market can lead to sharp spikes in prices. In
some cases, supply can be affected by floods or droughts that lie
outside the control of policymakers. But in other cases, supply
comes off the market as a direct result of policy actions, notably
restrictions on exports. Governments that impose export
restrictions, such as quotas, taxes, or bans, often do so for the
understandable reason that they want to ensure adequate supplies of
meat or cereals for domestic consumers. Yet, trade in agricultural
products represents such a small percentage of overall production
that the absence of even one big player from the export market can
have a dramatic effect on prices.
Fortunately, governments have come
to see that humanitarian efforts can be undermined by such
restrictions. A recent meeting of the agriculture ministers of
developed countries resulted in an agreement to resist the use of
any restrictions adversely affecting efforts to feed the hungry.
Last week, at the World Trade
Organisationís (WTO's) ministerial conference, ministers took up the
issue again and adopted a resolution ensuring that the supply of
food available to feed the bottom billion is unhindered by export
These two policy prescriptions
represent the best hope for confronting one of the most serious
problems faced. The Earth's population is set to grow from seven
billion to nine billion by 2050, so, unless we take urgent action,
the food security crisis will only become more acute