Global leaders should not forget their promises on food security, says Robin Willoughby.

Robin Willoughby

The November 2011 G20 meeting in Cannes last week, perhaps understandably, focused on addressing the eurozone crisis. However, behind the financial headlines lies a bigger crisis of global hunger and malnutrition.

The Horn of Africa famine has drawn heightened attention to the issues of food security and hunger, with many tens of thousands of people suffering from losses of food supplies and an inability to purchase food in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.

However, this situation represents only the tip of the iceberg of a wider food crisis that affects almost a billion people.

Hunger levels have remained stubbornly high and have indeed increased during (PDF) and just after the 2008 food price spike. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) notes that the world produces enough calories per person to feed the world, but that hunger levels remain at ‘serious’ levels globally. Twenty-six countries in the world have hunger levels that are described as ‘serious’ or ‘alarming’.

The French government promised to place food security and agriculture at the forefront of its agenda when it took the mantle as President of the G20 in 2011.

So what happened, and what should we expect from the G20 in 2012?

Steps forward on global food security

French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s announcement that he will be taking forward a proposal on a financial transaction tax caused a flurry of excitement from some NGOs. There were incremental moves from G20 governments to close down secrecy of tax havens, as well as the need to invest in national social protection floors – important for improving the access to food for vulnerable people.

Regarding agriculture and food security, the French Presidency of the G20 acknowledged the need to regulate and improve transparency in commodity markets, through ex-ante position limits, a tool which ‘can cap the amount of the market that can be held by an individual trader’ and the creation of an Agriculture Market Information System, also known as AMIS.  These measures, if fully implemented, represent a step forward in attempts to intervene in opaque agricultural markets that many, such as Julian Oram on this blog, believe have amplified or directly contributed to food price volatility.

The outcome text and communiqué also refer towards the need to ‘foster investment in smallholder farmers’ as well as to promote farmers’ access to risk management tools to manage price risks. The members also pushed forward with a plan developed by the World Food Programme to initiate a system of emergency food reserves in West Africa.

The world’s poorest people

However, with the political crisis in Greece overshadowing much of the agenda, food security was left as a footnote. The agenda was overambitious, and as a result led to an incoherent set of outcome documents that offered much in rhetoric but delivered little in commitments, particularly on agriculture and food security.

While the communiqué and declaration name-check the importance of investment in agricultural productivity, the text lacks details on the targeting of that support, for example to resource poor smallholder farmers and other marginal livelihood groups. The text also mentions the need to foster investment in agriculture, but there is no specific mention of the members investing in the resource poor farmers themselves.

Similarly, the members fail to mention the G8 L’Aquila Food Security Initiative (PDF) from 2009, where donors promised to invest in the country-owned plans agriculture and food security plans of vulnerable countries. Eighteen of the G20 (PDF) have signed up to this pledge, and it remains off-track, with only 22 percent disbursed so far, and 26 percent ‘on track’ to be disbursed.

Support for resource-poor smallholder farmers

A number of non-governmental organisations, such as Concern Worldwide, who have many years of experience in working on food security at the field level, believe that investment in smallholder farmers remains an effective method to reduce poverty and food security in rural areas.

Policy think-tank IFPRI suggest that support to agriculture, as well as complementary investments in education, health and social services is vital to meeting Millennium Development Goal target 1 on hunger through increasing the availability of food and improved dietary knowledge. Due to the predominately-rural nature of poverty, analysts suggest that growth in agriculture can be more than twice as effective (PDF) at reducing poverty as growth in other sectors, and that growth can be particularly pro-poor when it is based on small farms.

Investment in smallholder farmers can result in linkages with the non-farm economy, create job opportunities, and boost the local businesses. Agricultural economists in the Montpellier Panel have called this process a ‘virtuous circle’ where support to poor farmers leads to spillover effects in other parts of the economy.

Looking to 2012

G20 members should keep their promises to the world’s poorest people in 2012. Principally, it is imperative that the Mexican Presidency keeps food security on the agenda – in particular support for resource poor smallholder farmers. There are three concrete ways that G20 members can help to achieve this aim.

Firstly, the G20 governments should rigorously monitor the commitments of members that have committed to the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative from 2009. It remains critical that donor countries keep their commitments to support vulnerable countries to invest in smallholder agriculture.

Secondly, investments should be monitored against measurements that move beyond productivity and address poverty reduction and malnutrition indicators. This process would ensure that support is targeted at those people most in need, and can improve the effectiveness of aid delivery.

Lastly, despite an era of austerity, there remains a desperate need for further public sector investment in smallholder agriculture. G20 governments can help with this aim by supporting the country-owned agriculture and food security plans of countries vulnerable to food insecurity – small-scale producers in vulnerable countries expect nothing less.

About Robin Willoughby

Robin Willoughby is Policy Officer at Concern Worldwide (UK). Concern Worldwide is an international humanitarian organisation dedicated to reducing suffering and working towards the elimination of extreme poverty. In an effort to support these aims, Concern Worldwide (UK) has recently launched a campaign action, calling on members of the public to pressure the UK Government and other donors to keep their hunger promises.

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