In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Ertharin Cousin (Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme), Prof. Jeffrey Sachs (Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University) and Carlos Pérez del Castillo (Chair of the Board of the CGIAR Consortium). We look at the true scale and nature of global hunger, exploring issues ranging from poverty to climate change, conflict to politics, economics to education and more. We discuss the realities of hunger in our world and how we can end it.
We are a hugely complex species. Our minds have overcome our biology- empowering us to achieve truly remarkable feats. This complexity exists somewhat as a paradox- the truth is, our minds have created a theatre, masking the fact that we are- at our core- tremendously simple. Our basic survival depends on (theoretically) the three most abundant resources on the planet; air, water and food- all of which, largely by our own hand, are under very real threat. Pollution is choking our air, and poisoning our food while a storm of factors ranging from climate change to overpopulation, economics and politics are exhausting our food supplies.
Hunger does not generate statistics in an instant, like a war, tsunami or an earthquake, where the scale of death over a short period of time is enough to wake society into action. Hunger is systemic, a phenomenon that stalks us. In 2011, around one billion people (one in seven of us) were acutely hungry. Their calorie intake was too low to meet even the most basic requirements for life. Existing in unjust purgatory between life and death, these individuals were joined by a further 1.5 billion who lacked the essential micronutrients to experience a baseline of health and activity. Over 8 million people (roughly the population of New York City) died from hunger in that same year (almost 6 million of them were children).
When you put these figures in context, the oversight that humanity has made becomes very apparent. “…The world today produces enough grain alone to provide every human being on the planet with thirty-five hundreds calories a day. That’s enough to make most people fat! And this estimate does not even count the many other commonly eaten foods- vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats, and fish. In fact, if all foods are considered together, enough is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day. That includes two and a half pounds of gran, beans and nuts; about a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly another pound of meat, milk and eggs….” (World Hunger- 12 Myths, Lappe, Collins and Rosset). Saying ‘the world produces enough food’ is a dramatic oversimplification of the food security situation, but illustrates the injustice of such large-scale hunger in a world with the capability to ensure it does not exist.
“…The right to food stands out as one of the most urgent, and compelling, human rights in a world that already produces more than enough food to feed its current population, yet in which a child below 10 ‘dies from hunger or malnutrition related diseases’ every five seconds…. The right to food is one of the most basic economic, social and cultural rights imaginable, because it addresses one of the most fundamental needs faced by all humans…” (Accounting for Hunger, Olivier de Schutter, Kaitlin Y Cordez)
So what is the true scale of hunger in our society, and what can we do to eradicate it?
In this exclusive series of interviews, we speak to Ertharin Cousin (Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme), Prof. Jeffrey Sachs (Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University) and Carlos Pérez del Castillo (Chair of the Board of the CGIAR Consortium). We look at the true scale and nature of global hunger, exploring issues ranging from poverty to climate change, conflict to politics, economics to education and more.
Ertharin Cousin began her tenure as the twelfth Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme on 5 April 2012.
As the leader of the world’s largest humanitarian organization with approximately 15,000 staff serving about 100 million beneficiaries in 78 countries across the world, she is an exceptional advocate for improving the lives of hungry people worldwide, and travels extensively to raise awareness of food insecurity and chronic malnutrition.
In 2009, Ertharin Cousin was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, and head of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. Agencies in Rome. During her nearly three years as the chief U.S. diplomatic voice for famine relief and hunger solutions, Cousin helped guide U.S. and international policy around some of the most devastating and life-threatening situations in the world. She advocated for aid strategies that integrate a transition from relief to development, including following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and for country-led sustainable agriculture programmes, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 flooding in Pakistan and in response to the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa.
Cousin worked in the Administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton for four years, including serving as White House Liaison to the State Department, and received a White House appointment to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development. Cousin served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer ofFeeding America (then known as America’s Second Harvest), the largest domestic hunger organization in the United States. She led the organization’s response to Hurricane Katrina, an effort that resulted in the distribution of various relief supplies, including food, to those in need across the Gulf Coast region of the United States.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is a world-renowned professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor, bestselling author, and syndicated columnist whose monthly newspaper columns appear in more than 80 countries. He has twice been named among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential world leaders. He was called by the New York Times, “probably the most important economist in the world,” and by Time Magazine “the world’s best known economist.” A recent survey by The Economist Magazine ranked Professor Sachs as among the world’s three most influential living economists of the past decade.
He serves as Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, as well as Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Health Policy and Management. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, and is director of theMillennium Villages Project. He has authored three New York Times bestsellers in the past seven years: The End of Poverty (2005), Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (2008), and The Price of Civilization (2011). Professor Sachs is widely considered to be the world’s leading expert on economic development and the fight against poverty. His work on ending poverty, promoting economic growth, fighting hunger and disease, and promoting sustainable environmental practices, has taken him to more than 125 countries with more than 90 percent of the world’s population. For more than a quarter century he has advised dozens of heads of state and governments on economic strategy, in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. He also advisedPope John Paul II on the encyclical Centesimus Annus.
He works closely with international organizations includingthe African Union, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the African Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Food Programme, UNAIDS, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, among others.
He served as advisor to Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and Finance Minister Boris Federov during 1991-93 on macroeconomic policies. He received the Leontief Medal of the Leontief Centre, St. Petersburg, for his contributions to Russia’s economic reforms. From the mid-1990s till today, Prof. Sachs has been involved with economic reforms in many parts of Asia, including India and China. He has been a senior advisor to the Indian Government, most recently on the scaling up of primary health care in rural areas (the National Rural Health Mission), a policy that he recommended and helped to promote through the Indian Commission on Macroeconomics and Health. For his broad-based support of India’s economic reforms he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest honors. The Millennium Villages Project, which he directs, operates in more than one dozen African countries, and covers more than 500,000 people. The MVP has achieved notable successes in raising agricultural production, reducing children’s stunting, and cutting child mortality rates, with the results described in several peer-reviewed publications.
Sachs is the recipient of many awards and honors, including membership in the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Society of Fellows, and the Fellows of the World Econometric Society. He has received more than 20 honorary degrees, and many awards and honors around the world. His syndicated newspaper column appears in more than 80 countries around the world, and he is a frequent contributor to major publications such as the Financial Times of London, the International Herald Tribune, Scientific American, and Time magazine.
Sachs was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1954. He received his B.A., summa cum laude, from Harvard College in 1976, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1978 and 1980 respectively. He joined the Harvard faculty as an Assistant Professor in 1980, and was promoted to Associate Professor in 1982 and Full Professor in the fall of 1983, at the age of 28.
Carlos Pérez del Castillo is Chair of the Board of the CGIAR Consortium. He has a long and successful history of international and national public service that has spanned over 35 years. In addition to being the Chair of the Consortium Board of the CGIAR Centers, he is also an independent international consultant involved in various assignments with governments, private sector, and international organizations.
In 2005 he was appointed Chairman of the WTO Panel established to examine the dispute over large civil aircraftsbetween the US and EC (Boeing-Airbus) and he carried out the Independent External Evaluation of Governance ofthe Global Environmental Facility. He was a member of the core team assigned with the Independent External Evaluation of FAO until 2007. From March 2004 until October 2005, he was the Special Advisor on International Trade Negotiations to the President of the Republic of Uruguay. Carlos Pérez del Castillo served as the Chairman of the WTO General Council, as Vice-Minister and Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay (1995-1998) and Permanent Secretary of the Latin American Economic System (1987-1991).
Carlos is Vice Chair of the Board of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council (IPC). He is a Member of the Steering Committee of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), ofUNESCO Senior Expert Group on Reforms, and runs a small cattle farm. Throughout his career, Carlos Pérez del Castillo, has been the author of a substantial number of publications on a wide range of international economic issues, and has written a large number of articles for both international and regional magazines and newspapers.
In 1990 he was awarded “The Dr. Raul Prebisch Award in Economics” by the Association of Latin American and Caribbean Economists, and he is a Permanent Member of the prestigious Harvard University Trade Group. Carlos Pérez del Castillo has received the highest decorations from the Governments of Brazil, Chile, France and Venezuela.
Q: Why does hunger exist in our world?
[Ertharin Cousin] Hunger exists because food is either not available, or not accessible. Food is not available for those who need access to it due to a variety of different causes relating to natural disasters, conflict, poverty, poor agriculture, poor infrastructure and more.
Food that’s in the market can also be made inaccessible because of high prices. We are seeing a time where price volatility impacts food prices, creating- for those who are most vulnerable- an inability to access food. If food is available in the market but at a high price then you. as the mother of a hungry child, will not have access to that food.
Q: What is the true scale of global hunger?
[Ertharin Cousin] Experts (including our partners the FAO) estimate that there are about 900 million people who cannot access food on a regular basis. We call those people ‘food insecure‘. Often when you are food insecure, you are food insecure with hunger because of the unavailability or inaccessibility of food meaning you cannot meet your dietary caloric intake requirement and you or your children, go hungry.
[Carlos Pérez del Castillo] According to FAO, 925 million people worldwide go to bed hungry every night. This is equivalent to one in seven people of this planet, a fact which is morally unacceptable. The region with the most undernourished people continues to be Asia and the Pacific with 578 million and sub-Saharan Africa with 239 million. Even in cases of adequate food availability, it may provide insufficient intake of micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, zinc and iodine, leading to disease, deficiencies and even death. This is referred to as malnutrition. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and zinc deficiency leads to the death of 450,000 children under the age of five worldwide.
Q: Do people realise the scale of hunger, and its impact for humanity?
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] No, of course they don’t! Not even within some of the countries affected by hunger.
India has an incredibly serious problem of childhood stunting and early-age under-nutrition, which has never been responded to adequately in that country- much less in the international community.
A lot of wealthy people have checked out, thinking none of this is about them. They feel they don’t have to pay taxes or support foreign assistance. We get a bit of grotesque moralising about how the poor should pull themselves up…
When crises hit- to the extent that people in our noisy world even hear about them- they are typically linked to ideological issues such as Islamic extremism or something else. Very rarely do you hear a political leader in the US or Europe taking the time to understand and explain to the public that what we’re really facing is hungry people… and that if we don’t do something about it, it will be bad for our humanity and our well-being.
Q: Is the definition of hunger adequate, is it just a developing world issue or does it affect the developed world too?
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] There are two big issues.
The first is at a technical level. Hunger is a multi-dimensional phenomenon and the metrics and definitions we use are very imperfect. Hunger involves a mix of acute and chronic issues such as dietary intake and the ability of a fragile body to absorb nutrients. It involves macro versus micro nutrients…. and all of the interactions between need, age, location and even role in life. Workers and manual labourers need different diets than young children for example. We lack metrics on most of this, and so we use very crude indicators. This requires much greater effort- particularly by the scientific community.
The second area is the ‘hidden-hunger‘ in the rich countries. We have in the United States, a remarkable number of people- tens of millions- who are eating on the basis of food stamps. The hunger crisis has become enormous. I pass food lines all the time in New York City. We see people in our neighbourhood waiting in food lines at churches. This has become absolutely normal and a common reality in Manhattan. US society has become so unequal and the poor are so voiceless and politically powerless, that the hunger crisis has intensified with very little public notice or discussion. This is a very real issue.
[Carlos Pérez del Castillo] There is no single worldwide formally accepted definition of hunger. It describes however the status of people whose food intake does not include enough calories to meet minimum physiological needs, estimated to be at 1800 kcal per day, although it varies for men, women and children and on how much energy they spend.
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. So the key drivers are not only the availability of global supplies of food to meet the demands of a growing world population, but the possibilities of having access to that food (income) and the safety and nutrition value of food staples.
Addressing food security is a production versus distribution question. On the production side, droughts, significant yield gaps, poor natural resources management, post harvest loses and consumer waste all contribute to hunger. On the distribution side, social inequity, food prices, quality of infrastructure and food/aid policies all contribute to hunger.
Q: Is there a relationship between hunger and conflict?
[Ertharin Cousin] Unfortunately, there is a growing relationship between hunger and conflict. In 1992 we saw that around 15% of hunger emergencies were related to conflict. That number has increased to around 35%. A growing and more complex response is required to meet the needs of those who are hungry- when that hunger generates from, or is created because of conflict situations.
The lack of food is often used as a weapon in conflicts. Denying access to food can have a detrimental impact on a population. In those situations, the ones who suffer the most are the ones who are most vulnerable- usually women and children.
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] Conflict undermines every aspect of life, including the ability to produce food and make sure people are food secure. Every system breaks down. Whether it’s health, food security, school or any other form of basic infrastructure- you will find it’s set back… often devastatingly… by conflicts.
There’s no question that when a situation is allowed to deteriorate to the point where it leads to mass open violence, you will get huge compound damage from that. Most conflict situations in the world today are very poor places that have a rather significant crisis in the lead-up to conflict. In many cases…. for example Yemen, Somalia or Mali…. there is plenty of advanced warning, but the world isn’t interested in taking the signals and acting ahead of time.
Q: Is there a relationship between climate change and hunger?
[Ertharin Cousin] There is of course, a relationship between hunger and climate change. We see more natural disasters, more floods, more tropical storms. We see less frequent rainy seasons too. In areas like Africa, over 90% of agriculture is still rain-fed- they’re dependant on steady or predictable rain, and unfortunately rains are getting less predictable. That is the basis of the problem we are currently addressing in Sahel- which is the largest disaster we are presently addressing and is directly related to climate change.
The Horn of Africa is experiencing the exact same thing where you are seeing more frequent droughts. These impact crop cycles in areas where the population are already very vulnerable.
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] There’s no question that the last decade has been a prolonged period of climate shocks and extreme events that are jeopardising the reliability of the world food system. We have experienced it dramatically this year, with the US experiencing the worst drought in decades- hitting right in the bread-basket of the United States- which is also the bread-basket for a lot of the world, at least where you consider maize supplies and feed grains. We’re seeing this everywhere… in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Russia and Ukraine… We’re seeing devastating heat waves and massive flooding in parts of South and South-East Asia…
Climate change has made the problem of hunger more serious and more complex. It may even turn out to be intractable in many regions. Many experts on climate fear that whole regions could become essentially uninhabitable, or at least unable to grow their own food supply. When they are poor regions that depend on their own food supply, the idea that they can somehow substitute to quickly buy food from abroad is very naive.
One of my colleagues just came back from Bhutan in the Himalayas where they have been measuring glacier retreat. The speed of retreat shocking. You hear generalisations that the Himalayan glaciers are intact, but the ground truth is that dramatic things are happening.
I’ve spent a lot of the last year in the Horn of Africa and Sahel. There are major droughts and societal collapse underway in both places. I was in Mali just before the coup, and the North was overrun. The governor in one of the provinces was telling me, we’ve got growing violence, the hardship of famine, and asked for help. Before I could get back and appeal to the international community, the coup happened, communities were overrun- violence, destruction and murder were taking place. We see these things coming but absolutely don’t react to them.
For all the things that we’ve been advising on around the world, everything is vulnerable to large climate shifts and famines can easily undermine all of the work we do in development.
Demographics are an obvious continuing threat in large countries, but climate change is the obvious one.
We’ve been reckless and foolish to waste the last 20 years after signing The Framework Convention on Climate Change, and continue to debate the obvious. The obvious being that we’re already in the era of human-induced climate change, and it’s going to get a lot more serious.
This is absolutely the biggest worry in our fight against poverty. Climate change could overwhelm all of the good efforts that are being made right now.
Q: To what extent has the ‘Western World’ caused global hunger?
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] The Western World has caused the climate change that is now deranging our planet.
The emerging economies are now themselves so big and populous that they have become around half the contribution to flow of global greenhouse gases.
Historical responsibility is a very complicated question, but what I would say is that it is a moral truth that we must get our act together to address what is now a dramatic and unprecedented crisis of development, environment and demography. This is a crisis that will require engagement on all fronts, engaging every part of the planet- rich and poor alike.
If we don’t do that, the amount to which basic wellbeing in the world will be undermined will be such that I can’t really see how anybody can be safe- no matter how high the gates are that protect them in their gated communities.
I just don’t see how we’re going to get through this very difficult and unique period for humanity where- for the first time in human history- the scale of the challenges we face environmentally are global. There is nowhere to run to or hide. There is no place so remote as to be protected from these events, and no part of the planet safe from the repercussions from hunger, conflict, disease and instability. We have a world of tremendous inertia, self-deception and corporate-deception.
Q: To what extent have the functioning of financial markets contributed to global hunger?
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] They have probably added some volatility due to the fact that food has become more of a financial investment vehicle with the food indexes having played a bigger role. I don’t think that they are a fundamental factor in what’s happening. A lot of people do- but I am a sceptic on that, and think we’re seeing something far more fundamental. I have a lot of complaints about the financial markets- this is not in any way to exonerate their irresponsibility on many, many fronts- but I don’t think they’re the main source of the problem in this area.
Q: What is the relationship of hunger to global health challenges?
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] We know of course, and have long understood, that chronic under-nutrition has extremely serious and complicated pathways into disease burden and pathogenesis. There have been new studies, even in recent weeks, which show how under-nutrition can lead to chronic diarrhoea and a lack of uptake, which causes feedback into the epithelial layer in the intestines. This hinders the ability of the body to take in the nutrients that are in the diet. To put this in context, it has been estimated that approximately one third of child deaths have under-nutrition as a co-factor…
Nutrition is a fundamental factor in human health, and a fundamental factor in disease burden. We sometimes stare at these basic truths, and do little in response. It’s perhaps unfair to say nothing is done, but the global response is not very impressive.
Q: How does hunger impact children?
[Ertharin Cousin] UNICEF, the organisation that focus all of their efforts on children, estimate that approximately 146 million children in developing countries are underweight. The challenge that we see is that children who are vulnerable when there is a hunger or food crisis are those children who often go moderately malnourished to acutely malnourished. These children can move from a situation where they are stunted to where they are simply wasting… Ultimately we see many children who die.
If a child is already in a very micronutrient deficient state, the inability to access food will detrimentally impact that child even further. We focus on addressing the nutrition needs of a child before the nutritional challenges result in that child wasting or becoming severely, medically malnourished.
What is very important is that we must work towards addressing the first 1,000 days of a child’s life- and that is from the time a pregnancy begins until the child is 2 years old. All the data tells us that a failure to meet the nutritional needs of a child during that period will detrimentally impact that child physically and mentally- for the balance of their life.
It is so important that in our work, we meet the nutritional needs of pregnant lactating women and children under 2.
Q: What has been the impact of hunger on women?
[Ertharin Cousin] All of the data we see, anecdotal and quantifiable, demonstrates that when we meet the food security needs of women, we are also addressing the food security needs of families. Whether we are specifically identifying women who are pregnant, or providing support to women to meet the food security needs of their households… the effect is the same. We have cash, voucher and food for work programmes where we know that the participation of women results in children being able to eat.
We work specifically with women. We work specifically with our partner FAO who provide seeds, tools and technical capacity building for women- increasing the yields of those women who are smallholders. We know that when you increase the yield of smallholders, you increase the increase the economic potential of a community by over 40%.
Focussing on women is not just an opportunity for us to change their lives as individuals, but also to change the lives of their families and entire communities.
Q: What are the key challenges facing world food security?
[Carlos Pérez del Castillo] Agriculture is facing today multiple and complex new challenges. We must not only expand production and productivity to feed a growing population estimated at 9 billion persons in 2050, but must meet the demands of changing diets as a result of rising incomes. We must do so with scarce natural resources: such as water and more competition for its uses; increasing land degradation and depletion of fish stocks. We have to cope with rising food price volatility; greater competition for food staples from the energy sector (biofuels); the spread of plant and animal infectious diseases and inappropriate food and agricultural policies that distort production and trade. Climate change will exacerbate an already adverse natural situation. Increases in temperature, changing patterns of rainfall, more extreme droughts and floods, shifting distribution of pests and diseases will change the face of farming and will have an impact on food production in the future. Finally, we are also facing a debt and financial crisis in major industrialized countries with its negative impact on agricultural investment.
My perception is that the world has today and will continue to have in the future, the capacity and technologies to produce enough food to meet global demands. FAO estimated that the world at the end of the nineties was producing enough food to provide every man, woman and child with 2,700 calories a day. But as we have seen, a food secure world does not only depend on the availability of food supplies but on having access to them. Here is where the links between poverty and food security become clear.
The situation obviously differs between developed and developing regions. Fifty percent of food insecure individuals are low-income farm households in dry lands (Sahel, Southern Africa and South Asia) and mountains (Mesoamerica, East Africa and South East Asia).The Global Food Security Index launched by the Economist Intelligence Unit showed that The United States, Denmark, Norway and France are the most food secure nations. On the other hand, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Haiti and Ethiopia ranked among the least food secure nations.
Q: What is the relationship of agriculture in our fight against hunger?
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] Hunger affects the poor, and most of the poor are farmers. The very producers of food are the largest group of those who are hungry.
It’s quite clear that these households don’t produce enough food for their own needs, let alone enough to take to market to earn a reliable income. Raising agricultural productivity has a direct effect on the food supply- a key part in overcoming hunger- but it also has a direct effect on the incomes of the largest single group of the poor. That means that attention to smallholder farmers… helping them to become commercial and gain access to the credits they need for better seeds, water management, mechanisation and so forth… is absolutely at the centre of any anti-hunger or anti-poverty effort.
When I began the UN Millennium Project a decade ago and visited the development aid agencies of the donor countries, almost all of them had essentially eliminated their agriculture programmes by the early 2000s. They had done so under the shockingly wrong-headed idea of the World Bank that agriculture takes care of itself. These ideas came from the theories of people who apparently had no international experience or knowledge of realities on the ground.
During the last ten years, there has been a modest revival of interest in this issue. This peaked at the L’Aquila summit in 2009 when the G8 promised $22 billion over three years. Like most of what the rich countries promise, that promise was not fulfilled… The response has been very lacklustre, and to this day the major effort on hunger has been emergency response rather than helping on agriculture. Emergency response capacities in the world are not only inadequate, but are falling further and further short of needs. Now you have– a famine is called, there is an emergency appeal, and only 20% of it is met. Hardly surprising when the rich countries can barely manage their OWN affairs, let alone appeals like this…
There was some turnaround rhetorically. The rich world is pretty good at hand-wringing. At moments it professes interest in these issues and announces programmes… but the reality is that there isn’t much there.
Q: What are the key opportunities in developing sustainable agricultural systems?
[Carlos Pérez del Castillo] According to the World Bank, GDP growth from agriculture generates at least twice as much poverty reduction than any other sector. Agriculture can contribute to green, low-carbon economic growth and poverty reduction through improved management of crops, livestock, soil, water, and trees.
Increasing investment in agricultural research is certainly part of the solution to a more food secure global system. The outcomes of agricultural research are not only effective at increasing productivity, improving nutrition, better management of natural resources and achieving food security but they are also cost effective. Spending on agricultural research offers high rates of return estimated at around 40%. Each dollar invested in CGIAR research has yielded nine dollars in productivity improvements.
CGIAR’s comprehensive research portfolio, worth $5 billion dollars over the next five years aims to reduce rural poverty, improve the food security, health and nutrition of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people, and ensure sustainable management of natural resources. Fifteen new programs build on CGIAR’s accomplishments over the past 40 years, including research on natural resource management that has helped to conserve water, renew soil fertility, and reduce erosion and greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously increasing farmers’ yields.
Improvements in crop yields since the 1960s have reduced emissions by up to 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year – that’s 34% of total human carbon emissions (Stanford University) (2010). Developments in genomics and the better use of genetic resources are opening up new avenues for enhancing the yield and stress tolerance of the crops, trees and animals on which people depend for food and incomes.
Q: What is the role of the financial market (and market regulations) in agriculture?
[Carlos Pérez del Castillo] The financial market can play several important roles in agriculture:
Investment To address the needs of a changing world and take advantage of new opportunities, stronger investment in agricultural science is essential at the national and international level. This can be market-driven, especially for commercially-viable crops, but public sector research also plays an important role, especially in addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.
Partnership The private sector can partner with other stakeholders to accelerate and expand research programmes as well as to disseminate and instruct about agricultural innovations on the ground.
Regulation Appropriate regulation in commodity exchanges may contribute to manage food price volatility. IFPRI estimates that between now and 2050 staple-food prices could rise by 42-131 percent for maize, 11-78 percent for rice, and 17-67 percent for wheat, depending on the state of the world’s climate, economy, and population. Regulation is also useful in ensuring safety nets in developing countries for vulnerable farmers.
Q: How can agricultural innovation help in our fight against hunger?
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] The history of agriculture in the last 200 years is one of significant improvements in the quantity and often quality of food. It has a been a period during which we have recognised the importance of micro-nutrients, vitamins and the fortification and supplementation of food. This need for improvement becomes more urgent now with 7 billion people on the planet, and the global food system under stress.
If we don’t have improvements in technology, climate change will wipe out a lot of our existing capacity. This will be further compounded by a depletion of groundwater and aquifers in a number of major food producing regions such as India and the Mid-Western United States over a period of decades. In Northern China, the retreat and disappearance of glaciers will put freshwater supplies for food production under severe stress.
If anyone thinks food security will be achieved for the soon to be 9 billion people on the basis of reverting to basic technologies, they don’t have a realistic picture of just how serious this challenge is, and how we have walked into this Malthusian threat. The situation is likely to get a lot worse unless we get significantly more serious about this.
Q: How does gender equality impact agriculture and hunger?
[Carlos Pérez del Castillo] In most regions of the world one out of five farms is headed by a woman, and on average, women currently make up 43 percent of the agricultural workforce. Nevertheless, inequalities persist between men and women in:
Assets for agriculture (land, water, trees, etc.)
Access to education, training, credit and inputs such as fertilizers and seeds
Access to services such as information, technology, markets, technical assistance and labor protection
Ability to participate equally in farmers’ organizations
Ignoring the gender gap in agriculture has significant consequences, both in terms of agricultural output, which could increase by 20 to 30 percent if female farmers had the same access to agricultural resources as men, but also in terms of the economy, which loses additional revenue women could generate if they had equal opportunities. This could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 12 to 17 percent (equivalent to 100-150m people) (FAO 2010-11).
In sub-Saharan Africa, women do about 80 percent of the farm labor. That means that any effort to improve the region’s agriculture generally or the lives of its small farmers in particular must take women’s needs and roles into account.
Despite efforts to address gender issues in agriculture, changing the lives of women on the ground has remained an elusive goal. The portfolio of research programmes being currently implemented by the CGIAR has given a high priority to research on gender that commits to deliver research outputs with measurable benefits to women farmers in target areas.
Q: How do the agricultural sectors impact poverty?
[Carlos Pérez del Castillo] Three quarters of the world’s poorest people – those who live on less that $1 a day – depend almost completely on agriculture for food and income, but many cannot grow enough food to feed their families, much less to sell.
When children go hungry or are malnourished, their physical and mental development is stunted, their ability to learn is compromised, and they are far more susceptible to disease. If malnourished children survive to adulthood, their income-earning opportunities and productivity are severely diminished, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger.
Improving agriculture can dramatically change all that. When smallholder farmers have access to new agricultural technologies and crop varieties, they are able to get more out of their land, labour and livestock. Their families eat better, earn more money, are healthier, lead more productive lives, and are better able to send their children to school.
Agricultural and food policies have a crucial role in reducing rural as well as aggregate poverty in Africa, given that the bulk of the poor are in rural areas, and are employed in agriculture.
History shows that different rates of poverty reduction over the past 40 years have been closely related to differences in agricultural performance.
Q: What is the role of food-aid in disaster and conflict zones?
[Ertharin Cousin] Food assistance in disaster and conflict situations often takes the form of food-aid because of the failure of the local market to be able provide food for the community. When we bring food-aid into a community it provides for that civilian population, the stability they require during a period of conflict or emergency.
Syria is a great example of our operations in a conflict zone. In the month of June 2012, we reached over 500,000 individuals affected by the conflict- we are looking to scale this up to over 850,000. The challenge we have is a lack of access to populations in areas where conflict is raging. In these situations we try to partner with local NGOs who may be able to get access to areas where we cannot go. We also work with our other partners in the UN to ensure political leaders will provide humanitarian space to ensure we can provide food support and security to people who still live in those areas- and ensure their nutritional needs are met. We also work with UNHCR as we often see populations who become refugees. In Syria we have seen many people arrive in neighbouring countries with nothing but the shirt on their backs. UNHCR works with the population to meet their water and sanitation needs and we ensure their nutritional and food needs are met.
Our goal is to reach vulnerable people. Whether that vulnerability has been created by man-made conflict, climate change or natural disasters… WFP and our partners are there to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and hungry poor.
Q: How can corporations and individuals play a role in the fight against hunger?
[Ertharin Cousin] Firstly, we need people to be aware of the challenges facing the 900 million people in the world who are food insecure. Awareness is the first step to building the public will that is required to support governments, corporations and individuals in providing the financial support that we need to meet the food security needs of those populations. We then need that public will to build and to be reflected in the scale of the contributions we and our partners received.
It’s important that this happens not just when the pictures are on CNN. So often the real problems are not on the news until they become crises. We can avoid crises by having the resource to reach populations in their times of need- so that crises do not occur. We need financial assistance and we need people to push their governments. When taxpayers tell their leaders, “…we want you to invest in the food security needs of those around the world…” – governments respond. When buyers of products and consumers tell corporations, “…we buy your products because we know you invest in supporting the hungry and food insecure in the world… ” – corporations respond.
We need public will, we need voices. We need people to tell the story to ensure that no child goes hungry in a world where there is so much.
Q: Is it a realistic goal for us to say we can end hunger?
[Ertharin Cousin] I get up every single morning, along with our 14,000 people in 77 countries around the world, who work every single day because we believe that it’s a realistic goal that we can end hunger.
[Prof. Jeffrey Sachs] It is a feasible objective, but not the course we’re on now- not even close.
It is technically feasible because sustainable development in general is feasible. We have the wealth, the tools and the technology to address the climate crisis (albeit over a period of decades). We have the means to help Africa to become self-sufficient in food over the course of a decade. We have tremendous knowledge on nutrition and health, deeply under-deployed, which could make a huge difference for the world.
The world is very rich and the poor are so poor that it would take only a tiny fraction of the vast wealth hidden in tax havens to make a huge difference. The most powerful trend of globalisation economically is to empower the tax havens…. we even have presidential candidates who specialise in them…. most of the hand-wringing you see is disguising inaction.
This is the world we’re in. We have vast wealth and technology, but people are left to die.
[Carlos Pérez del Castillo] The good news is that global hunger numbers are going down. The bad news is that there are still 925 million too many. This is an unacceptable situation, and it is morally and politically essential to deploy all efforts not only to reduce this situation, but as predicated by some, to “abolish” it.
Any realistic action plan towards the eradication of hunger, requires as an imperative first step, that decision makers raise world food security concerns to a higher political level, ensuring that they are given a higher priority place in their agendas that what they have at present. Hunger and world food security are not only humanitarian problems that require technical solutions, but an urgent political problem closely associated with poverty reduction, with crucial economic and social development objectives as well as with securing political stability, peace and security goals. In other words, they are political issues that require political solutions.
We have all the tools to firmly address this situation. In 2012 the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change showed us how with seven recommendations:
Integrate sustainable agriculture into national and global food policies
Increase investment in sustainable agriculture
Sustainably intensify food production
Assist the most vulnerable populations and sectors (including women)
Reshape food access and consumption patterns to ensure nutritious diets
Reduce waste in food systems
Are we going to be able to harness the political will, the coordination of international cooperation efforts; the implementation of a system of global governance on food security; the technology; the partnerships and the technical and financial resources to achieve that aim is still an open question. Judging from the meagre results reached in recent multilateral negotiations (WTO Doha Round, UN Climate Change negotiations, etc.) one cannot be too optimistic about the prospect of ending hunger in the world in the foreseeable future.
This does not mean, however, that we should give up on this essential obligation. We at CGIAR can certainly make a contribution towards that goal. Examples of potential impact from
CGIAR’s new research portfolio are given below:
Maize and wheat: By 2030, 33% higher maize productivity will meet the annual food demand of an additional 600 million people, and 21% higher wheat productivity will do the same for 397 million.
Climate change and agriculture: Research will make crops less vulnerable to drought, flooding, salinity, pests and disease; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and help cut poverty by 10% and the number of undernourished rural poor by 25%
Rice: Higher yields will raise farmers’ incomes and lower prices, reducing how much the very poor spend on rice by $11 billion annually and lifting 150 million people out of poverty.
In his 2001 book, ‘The Third Freedom’ George McGovern stated that, “Hunger has plagued the world for thousands of years. But ending it is a greater moral imperative now than ever before, because for the first time humanity has the instruments in hand to defeat this cruel enemy at a very reasonable cost. We have the ability to provide food for all within the next three decades… If we can now reach other planets thanks to the scientific genius of our space architects, there is no acceptable reason why this planet should still have millions of hungry and starving men, women and children….” He continues, “…There is no excuse for this kind of massive lifelong torture, ending only with an agonizing early death. Yet this is the fate that has been dictated from cradle to grave for one out of every seven human beings on our planet. No war in all of history has ever killed so many humans and spread so much suffering and disease in any year as world hunger does annually.”
“…Food isn’t fashion,” write Fraser and Rimas in ‘Empires of Food’, “…It’s survival- for individuals and for civilizations. And the New Gluttony habit of turning food into a fashion statement risks undermining the critical danger we face. It’s easy to dismiss the fear that our food system is threatened- after all; our minds are already too crammed with time bombs. If loose nukes aren’t ticking down to Armageddon, then the glaciers are. Or the banks.” The authors pick up on an important point. The developed world has a tendency to only act on issues which manifest in their own society, or which threaten their livelihood. As it stands, for the majority of developed world hunger is something happening ‘over there…’ a developing world issue which charities and governments will eventually get around to solving. As populations and demand rise, without corresponding improvement in food security- prices go up. Much like we see with energy, a tipping point will occur whereby those with political voice find it hard to afford food. When that point comes, and billions more are tipped into poverty- maybe the world will act. When that point comes, however- it may be too late. And that is a terrible injustice.
1n 1948, the majority of countries in the developed world adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A document founded on the consideration that, “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…” For most of those in the world who are hungry, their hunger a function their poverty- and as President George Bush identified in a 2002 speech, “…A world where some live in comfort and plenty, while half of the human race lives on less than $2 a day, is neither just nor stable…”
We sometimes treat poverty as a phenomenon existing outside us, like a weather system. “…Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom…” (Nelson Mandela, 2005)
For tens of thousands of years, humanity has faced a constant struggle to survive- but we have persisted. We have faced obstacles ranging from natural disasters, to conflict, disease and more- but we have persisted. Humanity now faces one of the most profound challenges since it emerged on earth, that being to ensure that we don’t starve. If we persist through that, and win… It could be one of our most profound and important victories.