Lets talk about food.

This week a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, The State of Food Insecurity 2011, predicted that we need to be prepared for volatile food prices, set to continue for the foreseeable future.  Every day, I hear of the reality for millions across the world as sky high food prices and their erratic nature push smallholder farmers and herders over the edge.

Currently, a critical example is Afghanistan, where drought has left 3 million people in need of emergency aid in the north, north-east and west.  Dawlat Sawur, 52 years old, with 4 sons and 3 daughters, used to be one of the richest herders in the worst affected area of Jawzjan, but even he has been forced to sell all 1700 of his goats and sheep at a low price.  He was worried that he would lose his animals as the grazing land diminishes, fodder runs out and animal prices plummet.  This is in stark contrast to the price of wheat which has almost doubled, compared to last year.

Another deteriorating situation is in Niger, where the Government has declared a state of crisis. At the end of August It was anticipated that farmers would yield as little as 20% from their harvest.   Billou Moctar, the Mayor of Abalak, told me “The pasture is bare in Abalak.  People haven’t recovered from the drought last year.  This year the rains were late, then floods came in September.  Their ability to sell animals to buy food was already weak, now it’s even weaker.”  On top of that, relatives who migrated to Libya years ago continue to return as refugees because of the conflict, putting a strain on limited food stocks.

The past three years have felt like a rollercoaster of spikes and swings in global food prices.  But at least this has been a wake up call to keep food security high on the global political and media agenda for the first time in decades.  The spotlight on famine in Somalia also provoked a ‘Never again’ attitude, uniting NGOs and governments to sign a Charter to End Extreme Hunger.

A new report Ending the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel http://community.eldis.org/sahelworkinggroup commissioned by nine aid agencies, argues for the need to strengthen sustainable livelihoods because food crises in Niger are becoming livelihood crises with problems of access, rather than problems of availability of food.  After all, one survey showed that the very poorest farmers in Maradi, Niger, produce less than a fifth of their basic food needs, which means that they depend primarily on buying food.  Even if improved farming techniques allowed them to double or triple their production, they would still have to buy almost half of their food, leaving them susceptible to unpredictable food prices.  Diversifying income from off-farm activities can build resilience against erratic food prices.

Globally, we need to keep up the political momentum and put an end to the cycle of hunger, which throws people deeper into poverty.  In the Gallup World poll, Sub-Saharan Africans said that agriculture is the most important issue for governments to address, and two thirds of them don’t think that their government is doing enough.  In fact, only eight African countries reached their commitment to spend 10% of their national budget on agriculture by 2008.  This is despite the fact that investment in agriculture is three times more effective in reducing poverty than other economic sectors, according to the World Bank.

Next week, I’ll be talking to decision makers at the Committee on World Food Security in Rome, to ensure that they agree a plan to address high food prices, and to invest in small-scale agriculture longer term.  This will help the poorest to cope with expensive food and to be prepared for the next hunger gap.  We need a radical step change to set the tone for the next decade.

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