Shaping Today’s Food Policy to Ensure Tomorrow’s Food Security

  • 2013•06•07

    In the above video, filmed after the discussion reported on below, Dr. Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute, joins UNU Rector David Malone for a conversation focusing on the release of the 2012 Global Food Policy Report, entitled “Walk the Talk: Ending Hunger by 2025”.

    On Friday, 31 May 2013, the United Nations University (UNU) hosted a discussion with Dr. Shenggen Fan (Director General at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)) and Dr. David Malone (Rector of the United Nations University, UNU). The audience for this event included researchers from several international organizations, and postgraduate students from UNU and other universities in Tokyo.

    With a vulnerable and inadequate global food supply chain, hundreds of millions of undernourished people worldwide, and a current projection that the targets of the first UN Millennium Development Goal (to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger) will not be achieved, world hunger remains one of today’s most pressing challenges. The event aimed to highlight the flaws of the current approaches in combating hunger, as well as the transformation of the definition of hunger and possible solutions to the problem.

    Dr. Shenggen Fan offered insights into the functions and decentralization process within IFPRI in its effort to adapt the organization to the ever-changing and increasingly politicized global challenge of hunger. World hunger has become a concept that goes beyond hunger and starvation, reaching into such fields as security, health, education and the status of women. Dr. Fan emphasized the necessity for policymakers to no longer focus only on increases of agricultural productivity, but to also combine education or market reforms (for example, to boost agricultural output and food security).

    IFPRI has undergone significant decentralization measures, with over one-third of its staff now working in the developing world to enhance primary sector investment. This decentralization is allowing IFPRI to establish and further boost its collaboration and knowledge diffusion on a local level, in order to maximize the impact of policies on populations. The key lies in applying the organization’s research and know-how in a pragmatic and efficient manner at a local level.

    IFPRI’s annual Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) highlights major food policy issues, developments and decisions by analysing food policy successes and shortfalls. The report provides suggestions on how to move forward and further improve policies and food situation for those living in poverty.

    Key points from the 2012 GFPR

    Dr. Fan placed emphasis on three key points from the 2012 GFPR.

    First, the world must recognize that the challenge is not only hunger but also “hidden hunger” — a term which indicates that the poor not only struggle with limited access to food, but that their food often has low nutritional value.

    Second, while there has been growing commitment to, and discussion on, the issue of food security and distribution by governments and the private sector, there is a need to “walk the talk” — that is, to follow through on these discussions to achieve tangible results. In 2009, the Group of 8 (G8) first committed to assisting developing nations to solve their food problems through agricultural capacity development, but more proactive engagement is needed to end hunger by 2025.

    Third, there is a need to work together to develop countries’ capacities to implement adequate policies. Initiatives must come from inside the developing nations, not from the outside.

    Food security as a political issue

    Food security is a politically sensitive issue in both the developed and developing world, placing emphasis on self-sufficiency. Access to food is considered a basic human right, but are there different ways of achieving food security and analysing its associated opportunity costs?

    Research has often shown that self-sufficiency is not the best solution for agricultural produce price fluctuation and hunger. Rather, open trade could be a key to solving starvation and malnutrition.

    Any trade negotiations must take into consideration the agricultural sectors, and Asian countries must work together — something that is already happening in the ASEAN+3 negotiations. As history has taught us, however, even long-term agreements that have been signed can be (and often are) broken because a country’s citizens are its first priority.

    When formulating food policy, reconciling political impulses with scientific evidence is highly complex. There are numerous ways to secure food accessibility and to minimize the impact of food crises. Furthermore, consensus must be achieved that export bans are not an adequate solution to combat food crises.

    Since 2008, there has been a significant shift in private sector involvement in food security. Corporate social responsibility programmes and changing business practices have begun to positively impact food availability and nutritional intake in the developing world, thus benefiting the lives of infants, children and mothers.

    Production and distribution

    In the world today, enough food is being produced to feed the global population. The problem is that no balance between food production availability and distribution has yet been found.

    Africa, for instance, must be able to produce more, generating an agricultural surplus, which can then be used to feed its urban centres. But for this to happen, food mobility within (as well as beyond) borders must be drastically increased.

    The dichotomy between food self-sufficiency and an open and free market mechanism is often being debated. Governments should use public food stocks to impact agricultural prices in case of crisis, targeting the poorest of the poor. Dr. Fan emphasized, though, that public food stocks should not be maintained in order to manipulate agricultural market prices.

    Two current epicentres of research are the utilization of biotechnology to combat world hunger and the dissociation between food consumption and nutritional intake. Ironically, an increasing amount of the poor appear to consume more foods that are low in nutritional value. On the issue of biotechnology, many African countries have changed their position towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs), now favouring their diffusion and consumption. Research from IFPRI has shown that biotechnology can be safe and that it can be used.

    World hunger unfortunately has remained a harsh reality for hundreds of millions of people. Efforts to fight it, and its associated long-term consequences, have been encouraging, but not sufficient.

    More momentum and dedication is needed to fight this highly politicized and complex challenge that indirectly touches upon other elements of society, such as access to education, the status of women and health. We must not just talk, but also walk.