Hungry billion

2008-06-06 00:00

Hunger is on the march: the chief of the World Food Programme could not have been more forthright at this week’s Rome summit. The figures are staggering: the number of people in danger of starvation is about to exceed one billion. Yet, shamefully, in industrialised countries vast quantities of edible food are thrown away.

The poor spend a disproportionate part of their income on food and real prices are at a 30-year high. The reasons for this are a matter of vehement debate and include the escalating price of inputs, especially oil and fertiliser, the growth of biofuel crops and climate change. But the bottom line is a need to improve food output by 50% before 2030.

Much has been made of farm subsidies and recent hoarding in the developed world, and what Oxfam describes as misguided trade liberalisation. But food security is a national responsibility and South Africa presents an unhappy example of government abdication. Land and agriculture have occupied too small a part of the national debate and attracted even less investment.

Land restitution is a hot political topic, but it remains largely symbolic in practice, while land reform is badly neglected. Yet, unless the latter can be achieved in a way that gives farmers secure tenure and the freedom to operate independently, this country’s future food security will remain at risk.

A heartening outcome of the Rome meeting was an agreement between three UN food agencies and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) chaired by Kofi Annan. This acknowledges that agricultural yields in Africa are often good, but benefit only a restricted locality for lack of storage and marketing infrastructure. Significant investment is promised.

The UN has pledged $1,2 billion in food aid. This is laudable, but the situation requires radical change of the sort promoted by Agra. An example comes from Lesotho where keyhole gardening has made a positive impact on smallholder production of vegetables.

International conferences generating aid have their place. But governments, including South Africa’s, need to recognise the opportunity to get involved at grass-roots level in creative and practical ways that deliver food.

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