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Food Security: Our forgotten crisis

International Herald Tribune (France)

25 January 2009

By Ban Ki-moon

and co-authored by Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain

We do not see many references to the food crisis in the news these days. Headlines are dominated by the economic slowdown. Forgotten though it may be, however, the food crisis has not gone away. Millions of people still experience it every day.

Prices may have fallen on global markets, but they nonetheless remain close to their 2008 peaks in many poor countries. The sheer volatility of prices makes it difficult for farmers to invest and plan; the global credit crunch compounds the problem.

Across the developing world - and even in wealthy nations - the purchasing power of poor and middle-income families has declined with slowing economic growth. The numbers of hungry people unable to exercise their right to food stands near one billion. Fifty million are malnourished children.

We are startled by these numbers. We are shocked by the human stories - families eating one meal a day rather than two, or going without food altogether; farmers are unable to afford seeds and fertilizer, and the vicious cycle deepens.

This should be a call to action. What seems to have been often forgotten, in recent decades, is that there is only a thin line between plentiful food at low prices and crippling shortages, even famine.

That is why we want to see an increased international focus on food security. It is essential to the world's well-being. This means making sure that the poorest people have food to eat. It means working on systems for social protection, agriculture and trade so that there is food for all.

World poverty and hunger cannot be reduced without improvements in agricultural production and distribution. More than a billon people - and roughly 75 percent of the world's poorest people - live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Most of the farm work is done by women. Their efforts contribute to the major share of the domestic product of poor countries. These smallholder farmers can produce more but will be unable to do so without help with credit, seeds, fertilizers and land tenure. They are often unable to get their produce to market. Over the past year, many have fallen into the ranks of the hungry - especially in households headed by women.

People in Africa suffer the most. But food insecurity is a global challenge, and that challenge is becoming more difficult due to climate change.

We are concerned that development assistance for agriculture has been falling off steadily, from 13 percent in the early 1980s to 2.9 percent in 2005-6. We are concerned that food systems are failing, with falling grain reserves, soaring prices and food riots. We know that the world will face ever-more severe food crises unless and until there is public action to stabilize food supplies and protect those who are most vulnerable. We cannot wait for the story to repeat itself.

Great efforts have been made during the past year. Farmers groups, community organizations, private enterprise and governments in many of the affected countries have worked hard, often together, to tackle this food security crisis. The international response has been commendable. But we know it is not enough.

We are joining more than 40 government ministers and heads of international organizations from all over the world in Madrid on Monday and Tuesday to reinforce our commitment to the fight against hunger. We will work together on an action plan for a coordinated, effective response to both the immediate effects and longer-term causes of food insecurity

Our meeting comes at a time when donor nations are committed, despite economic duress, to enabling all nations to realize the Millennium Development Goals. The first of these goals - ending poverty and hunger - can best be addressed through improving food access and supporting small-holder farmers.

We intend that this meeting on "food security for all" will take us closer to our goal of reducing hunger and suffering among people who have already been hit by numerous shocks.

We know that consistent finance is needed to create a food-secure world and to eliminate hunger, especially among children. Additional allocations to agriculture, rural development and social protection should be made in accord with aid effectiveness principles, and we should strengthen coordination and make greater use of institutional and financial systems to ensure transparency, predictability and results.

A time of economic hardship is a time to get back to basics. And no human need or economic fulcrum is as basic as the right to eat.

Ban  Ki-moon is the Secretary-General of the United Nations