Wed, May 16, 2012 - Page 9 News List

A food security role that the British prime minister cannot shirk

At this week’s G8 summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron has a great opportunity to take the lead in tackling poverty and save millions of people from hunger

By Jay Rayner  /  The Observer

It is tempting to wonder how much of an appetite US President Barack Obama will have for dinner tomorrow evening. Tomorrow afternoon, ahead of the two-day meeting of the G8 at Camp David, which starts on Friday, he will announce what is currently being called “the new alliance to increase food security and nutrition.”

It is an initiative by members of the G8 designed to tackle hunger in half a dozen African nations, which has been the subject of intense inter--governmental back-channel negotiations for the past few weeks. Obama is rightly famed for the power of his oratory, but if ever there was a moment for more than empty words, it is now. With food commodity prices spiraling upwards in a way not seen since the devastating price spikes of 2008, millions of lives literally depend upon it. When Obama sits down to eat, he will know that.

The plan as it stands this weekend is for a program designed to lift 50 million people out of poverty across six African nations: Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Detail is predictably hazy and hardly hugely innovative. It involves individual nations investing in the agricultural base from a macro level — large-scale irrigation schemes — through to the micro level of training for individual farmers and access to more robust seed stock, all of it intended to increase output and hence income.

That 50 million figure makes it sound like an ambitious initiative, but, compared to the scale of the global problem, it cannot help but feel meager. There are 170 million children alone who are suffering from chronic malnutrition, which leads to physical and intellectual stunting. Add the adults also at risk and we head towards a figure of 1 billion people without enough to eat.

There is also concern among aid charities over the approach. Focusing on economics — the notion of lifting people out of poverty — is all well and good, but without solid nutritional goals it does not stand for much and, while nutrition is likely to be mentioned in the announcement, there are unlikely to be any hard numbers. Then there is the mechanism for making it work. Where is the money to pay for it all coming from?

The Obama White House’s struggles over international aid budgets are well known and for a while during negotiations the US was pleading poverty. Objections from other G8 members appear to have loosened the purse strings, but will it be enough? And how will the program be expanded beyond the initial half a dozen or so nations?

“The initiative is definitely a step forwards,” says Brendan Cox, director of policy and advocacy at the aid agency Save the Children. “But it needs to be a down payment. It’s far from commensurate with the scale of the crisis.”

Indeed. The fact is that we have been here before. At the L’Aquila G8 summit in 2009, the member countries and five other donors pledged US$22 billion for food security and agricultural initiatives over three years. However, there was no clear schedule for payments and by last July only 22 percent of that much-needed money had been spent. That cannot happen again.

The situation is made all the more urgent by what is happening on the commodity markets, with analysts warning that we are at serious risk of a situation even worse than the food price spikes of 2008. On Friday last week, soybeans were trading at about US$545 a tonne in Chicago, just shy of the historic high in July 2008 of US$552, partly because of droughts across South America, which produces 55 percent of the global crop. Prices for rapeseed oil and corn are not far behind them.

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