(December 2001) Over the last five years, the number of hungry people worldwide has fallen by 8 million per year. Good news — except that the goal of the 1996 World Food Summit was to reduce that number by 20 million people per year in order to halve world hunger by 2015.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), realizing that the 2015 goal could not be met without renewed effort, called late last year for a “World Food Summit: Five Years Later” to be held in November 2001 to see how to put hunger back on the policy agenda. But why, as this year’s summit gets underway in Rome, should there be any optimism that another global gathering will go beyond rhetoric and make a difference?

A pre-summit conference hosted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Bonn this year demonstrated that there is less optimism than there is a growing recognition that the problem can and should be dealt with. Nearly 900 agriculture ministers, directors of private voluntary organizations, and agribusiness leaders attending the Bonn conference were polled on the prospects for achieving food security for all by 2020. Asked whether it will be achieved, 12 percent said yes, and 85 percent said no; asked whether food security can be achieved, 48 percent of attendees said yes, and 49 percent said no.

“At the end of the day, political will emerged as probably the key constraint … the political will to put food security on the top of the agenda and then to follow through with appropriate resources, investments, and policies,” said Rajul Pandya-Lorch, 2020 Vision coordinator at IFPRI and conference organizer.

To mobilize political will, IFPRI presented in Bonn the results of its 2020 Global Food Outlook. The report documents the progress that has been made but casts doubt on the ability of the world community to achieve the goal of the 1996 World Food Summit without swift and extensive investment and action. The proportion of children under the age of 5 who suffer from malnutrition fell from 45 percent in the late 1960s to 31 percent in the late 1990s, but because of population growth, the number of malnourished children has fallen much less sharply, from 187 million to 167 million.

And sub-Saharan Africa, where the total fertility rate of 5.6 (the average number of children per woman) is higher than for any other region, has made no progress at all. In fact, sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where hunger among children under age 5 has grown since 1970, from 18 million to 33 million.

Mark Rosegrant, the report’s lead author, used IFPRI’s International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT) to project the consequences for all world regions of staying the current course (see figure) and also of increasing investment in agricultural and rural development. Rosegrant believes 39 million children in sub-Saharan Africa will be hungry in 2020 with no change in present spending; with greater investment (of between US$76 billion and US$183 billion) in roads, irrigation, clean water, education, and agricultural research, the number of hungry children in sub-Saharan Africa could be reduced to 22 million.


Malnourished Children by Region, 1997 and 2020

Source: Rosegrant et al., 2020 Global Food Outlook (Washington, DC: IFPRI, 2001).

In discussing these numbers and what specific actions to take to improve them, participants made these observations and recommendations, which highlight the complexity of a seemingly straightforward problem:

  • Why focus on agriculture and rural development to reduce hunger, instead of focusing on poverty? Clare Short, secretary of state for international development in the UK, questioned focusing on poverty alleviation instead of on food security. Most of the participants (62 percent) felt that both approaches should be taken simultaneously. There was consensus that investing in agricultural development and growth not only boosts food production but also provides opportunities for generating income and creating employment, particularly in the areas where food insecurity is now entrenched, which is in the marginal or less favored lands. Studies by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) show 75 percent of extreme poverty occurs in rural areas where the principal economy is agriculture, and more than half of the world’s extremely poor people depend for their livelihoods mainly on farming or farm labor.
  • What are the challenges in providing aid to agriculture? To date, according to IFPRI, gains in production have come about primarily through expansion of the land area devoted to growing crops and through more intensive cultivation. But land is limited, especially in Asia, due to urbanization and degradation. Growth rates for cereal crop yields in most of the world have been decreasing since the early 1980s. And water is increasingly scarce. More intensive cultivation will take much more money for fertilizer, better seeds, better training, drip irrigation (which applies water very slowly and reduces water loss), and the like.
  • How can agriculture-led development assistance be improved? The prime minister of Uganda, Apolo Nsibambi, stressed that less developed countries must design national food policies that assign no less than 5 percent of the recurrent and development budget to the Ministry of Agriculture; invest in water for production so that farming does not depend on weather alone; and eliminate insecurity of land tenure by carrying out land reform. Several participants cited the need for a change in the policies of industrialized countries that protect and subsidize domestic agriculture. World Bank data show these policies cost poor countries that are pursuing agriculture-led growth more than US$40 billion per year in lost income. Short and others advocated better measures of hunger and poverty. Short said that “undernourishment,” used by the FAO, is a measure of how much food is available nationwide, rather than of the number of people who lack the means to obtain food. Household income and assessments of whether children’s weight and height are appropriate for their ages would be more precise measures, according to experts.

The World Bank has reported that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. targets have already worsened the plight of the poor and the hungry in less developed countries. Reflecting on the impact of those events and of the global campaign against terrorism on prospects for reducing hunger, Pandya-Lorch said: “While we need to immediately tackle the situation resulting from the September 11 tragedy, in the long term, we will need to redirect our attention to the fundamental issues of poverty, hunger, and vulnerability.”

Note: At press time, the November summit had been postponed indefinitely.

Allison Tarmann is the editor of Population Today.

For More Information

Mark W. Rosegrant, Michael S. Paisner, Siet Meijer, and Julie Witcover, 2020 Global Food Outlook: Trends, Alternatives, and Choices (Washington, DC: IFPRI, 2001).

Mark W. Rosegrant, Michael S. Paisner, Siet Meijer, and Julie Witcover, Global Food Projections to 2020: Emerging Trends and Alternative Futures (Washington, DC: IFPRI, 2001).

“Sustainable Food Security for All by 2020,” Summary Conference Papers. Available on the Web at: www.ifpri.org/2020conference/summaries.asp.

IFAD, Rural Poverty Report 2001 — The Challenge of Ending Rural Poverty (Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2001).