Food for All:
The World Food Summit
explains the urgent need to agree on a
far-reaching Plan of Action at the Summit
Today, over 800 million people do not have sufficient food for a healthy, full and active life. Some progress has been made but, without urgent and coordinated intervention, poverty, hunger and malnutrition will continue to undermine the lives of hundreds of millions of people now and in years to come. As a new millennium approaches, we must act as a global family to end the age-old scourge of hunger. We must honour our responsibility as custodians to conserve the Earth's natural resources while accepting the challenge of securing food for all.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has been at the forefront of promoting and defining food security as a concept that could guide development. For FAO, food security means ensuring that all people at all times have access to the food they need for a healthy, active life. It comes about when food is available throughout the year at prices affordable to everyone. Peace, endeavour and responsibility, solidarity and respect for the Earth are the values on which it depends.
With its political, social and economic dimensions, providing world food security demands the attention of all heads of state and government as it requires commitments and actions now on behalf of the entire spectrum of government ministries, international institutions and civil society as a whole. This is why FAO proposed holding a World Food Summit at its headquarters in Rome between 13 and 17 November.
The agenda of the Summit recognizes that food security depends on actions and decisions that extend far beyond the agricultural sector. The objective is to set realistic food security targets that countries can attain individually or in partnership with others. Typical areas earmarked for attention include ensuring the technical, political, social and economic conditions needed to foster food security, by investing in agricultural infrastructure, research and training, promoting sustainable agricultural and rural development, and improving access to food, particularly among the poor and disadvantaged groups.
Building on success
In raising the issue of food security, the progress achieved so far should not be ignored. At the start of the 1970s an estimated 920 million people in the developing world were chronically undernourished, with insufficient food to sustain them and allow for even low levels of activity. At the start of the 1990s, despite continuing population growth, the figure had been reduced to 840 million - about 20 per cent of the total population of the developing world. During a period of 20 years, the average dietary energy supply (DES) - a widely available indicator of food consumption - had risen in the developing countries as a whole from 2,140 Calories to 2,520 Calories per person per day.
Unfortunately, some countries and regions have failed to make adequate progress and even experienced reversals. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where agricultural production has failed to keep pace with population growth, many countries are now in a worse position nutritionally than they were 30 years ago.
Conditions for food security
The persistence of hunger and malnutrition has many explanations. The low priority given to agriculture by some governments, the lack of access to productive resources, and crop failures induced by climatic variability have resulted in low productivity and production and led to low incomes and poverty in the rural population, which constitutes the large majority in developing countries. In addition, inefficient and insecure production systems have increased the cost of food, making it inaccessible to the urban poor in these countries.
Governments have a responsibility to protect the nutritional well-being of their people, especially vulnerable groups. To achieve national food security, a country must have sufficient food supplies and be able to produce them or to import enough food to meet the needs of its population.
We must create conditions that will enable food security to become a reality. The emphasis should be on efficiency, effectiveness and partnership, drawing together the government, the civil society, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. Rural development programmes should, for example, strive to improve employment opportunities - particularly for the poor - within a diversified rural economy, and support the agricultural sector by making extension services and affordable agricultural inputs available to all farmers, irrespective of gender. The roles of the agricultural sector (including forestry and fisheries) as a source of food, employment, income and raw materials, as well as caretaker of natural resources, need to be more widely recognized.
Policies, legislation and regulatory mechanisms are needed which will ensure that land and water resources are managed sustainably and for the maximum social good. Structural adjustment programmes should support social goals such as eradicating poverty, generating productive employment and enhancing social integration. Incentives are needed to make producers more efficient so as to supply consumers with food at competitive market prices.
Ensuring stability of supply and meeting demand are key elements in national food security policies. Efficient domestic, regional and global markets are needed to match increasing demand with the supply of strategic goods, such as foodstuffs.
Improved scientific understanding and the transfer of technologies can increase the capacity for sustainable agriculture and development. The emphasis should be on efficient and cost-effective production, processing and marketing of food and agricultural products through innovation and access to new technologies. There is a need to improve basic educational standards in rural areas and to build up national capacity, in terms of personnel and institutions, in those disciplines necessary to establish and maintain food security.
Tremendous changes have occurred in the world economy over the past two decades, but external development assistance has declined. Agriculture has been disproportionately affected. Total external commitments to agriculture in 1994 were 23 per cent below those of 1980. Food aid has also declined from almost 17 million tonnes (cereal equivalent) in 1992/93 to around 9 million tonnes in 1994/95, and a growing proportion is devoted to emergency relief not development needs.
However, investment in agriculture, and in particular investment in food production, is a critical factor in achieving the food security goals. It is estimated that total incremental gross investments in food and agriculture of some $31 billion per year, above current levels, will be required to bring about the food production increases necessary to meet the needs of the expanding populations of developing countries. Of this total, some $19 billion will have to come from private sources, including on-farm investments by farmers themselves, complemented by an extra $12 billion per year in public investments, including through expanded lending for food and agricultural development by international funding institutions.
Achieving the objective
Without agreement at the World Food Summit on a far-reaching Plan of Action and its implementation, some 680 million people will still be chronically undernourished by the year 2010. Progress beyond this could result only from a combination of greater access to food and a faster growth in food supplies.
Present levels of hunger are intolerable in a world that has the capacity to produce enough food for all both now and in the future. The success of the World Food Summit will therefore be measured initially by the level of commitment it generates, but the final judgment will depend on how many seriously undernourished people remain in the decades ahead. To achieve universal food security by then, we must act now.
Dr. Jacques Diouf is Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.