G8 food fund the right step, if promises are kept

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 July, 2009, 12:00am

At the last minute, Group of Eight leaders managed to save the once-privileged gathering of rich nations from complete irrelevance. Little progress was made on climate change and trade, but a better-than-expected US$20 billion in farming investment was pledged to help poor countries feed themselves. The move represents a much-needed shift in focus to local farming capabilities, rather than relying on food aid. Done the right way, the three-year programme has the potential to help people in the poorest nations achieve greater self-reliance and wean them off food aid.

In a sense, the problem of hunger was solved decades ago through the so-called green revolution. Humankind has the technical know-how to produce enough food for everyone. The disgraceful fact that about one in six people in the world goes hungry today stems from failures of policy and governance in the poorest nations, and unfair and misguided practices in rich ones. Over the past half-century, the number of malnourished people has steadily dropped, but that trend has been reversed in the past two years, with the number rising to 1.02 billion this year.

The world's poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to affordable seeds, durable irrigation systems and transparent markets that allow farmers to receive a fair price for their produce. This has to change if Africa is ever to have a chance to stand on its own. Emergency food aid is clearly needed to save lives. But the longer-term solution must lie in helping African nations invest in their own food-production capabilities and develop market incentives for local farmers to produce food and make a living from it.

The United States and the European Union need to phase out their egregious farm subsidies, which distort market prices and - through convoluted mechanisms - encourage aid over investment in recipient nations.

The new food fund is, therefore, a significant step in the right direction. Unfortunately, little was achieved at the G8 summit on climate change, which is already threatening food security, helping the spread of such diseases as malaria, and prompting mass migration across Africa. In this, emerging nations such as India and China can do much to help bring about a successor accord to the Kyoto Protocol. That would benefit the poorest countries, just as the rich countries have helped them with the food fund. However, G8 nations have a history of falling short on meeting the commitments they make. This time, they must be made to keep their promises.