Rich nations failing to tackle child hunger

Despite the world producing more than enough food to feed everyone, a child still dies from hunger every 10 seconds, a situation made more alarming by the fading ability of high-profile summits to address food security issues and policy blindness to the systemic causes of starvation

By Alex Renton  /  The Observer, LONDON

Wed, Jun 12, 2013 - Page 9

Last week, another 1 million children under the age of five were declared dead because of malnutrition. This was not the result of a famine or a new disease, but simply because an eminent panel of doctors and academics working for the London-based Lancet, a weekly general medicine journal, published findings showing that existing research on child mortality had got it wrong.

So the tens of thousands of anti-hunger campaigners who met in central London’s Hyde Park on Saturday should not have been spreading 2 million paper petals for each of those dead children, but 3.1 million, and the awful campaign headline statistic — that a child dies from hunger every 15 seconds — should have been “every 10 seconds.”

These tragic figures are a big disappointment to a world that believes it is doing rather well on profound poverty. The numbers of humans living on less than US$1.25 a day will be halved by 2015, a success for a UN Millennium Development Goal target set in 2000. However, it turns out that, contrary to the wisdom of a generation of economists, economic growth does not necessarily reduce hunger, especially among the world’s poorest.

Child malnutrition has increased in India in the past decade, despite its economic boom. The world still has more than enough food to go around — but distributing it fairly, or even humanely, is not simple at all.

The Lancet report was released to give a push to the half-day summit on nutrition and growth called by British Prime Minister David Cameron on Saturday ahead of the G8 meeting in Ireland later this month. Food security is an item on the agenda item there, though it has been pushed lower than it was at the beginning of the year.

The London mini-summit — attended by no significant G8 figure other than Cameron — was more evidence that the ability of grand, red-carpet summits to address issues such as world food supply may be over. Both the G20 and the G8 have proved big on promises, but not so hot on delivery.

In 2009, at the Aquila G8 summit, US President Barack Obama launched a plan to boost the world’s poorest farmers as a route to improving world food security. The G8 nations lined up to pledge an impressive US$22 billion to the plan, but analysis by the One anti-poverty campaign now shows that two-thirds of that money was “double spending” — aid money already committed — and the G8’s own analysis shows that 26 percent of the money committed has not materialized.

Despite all the talk, in the years since Aquila, aid spending on African agriculture has gone up only a couple of percentage points.

When it comes to addressing the systemic problems that threaten world food security, the big powers now seem puny. One key cause of the food price increases seen in 2008, and from 2010 to 2011, was the panicky bans on grain exports imposed by Russia and others when their harvests looked doubtful. That spooked the commodities markets, excited the speculators and sent prices soaring, despite no underlying lack of food.

Meanwhile, the WTO’s talks have been stalled for five years, offering no mechanism for a global trade initiative to stabilize food prices.

It is interesting that against this muddle and lack of accountability — another issue on the G8 agenda — one couple at Saturday’s summit, Bill and Melinda Gates, are provably spending US$370 million a year on the poorest farmers — providing technical help and developing new, climate-change-tolerant crops. These are the measures that all analysts agree can make a real difference to hunger, while also reducing Africa’s dependence on food imports.

The Gates Foundation has also backed an initiative from African nations made in 2003 to pledge 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture. Ten years on, 24 countries have signed up, though only four have met their targets so far. Nevertheless, the mortality rate in sub-Saharan Africa is down 18 percent since 2005.

The grandstanding aid strategies led by old, rich world governments are beginning to look out of date. Besides, the coffers are not as full as they used to be. So those attending Saturday’s London nutrition summit were largely developing country leaders and people from the business world, including Bill Gates and Unilever chief executive Paul Polman, gathered because of last year’s G8 initiative: the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

Set up to combine the forces of African businesses and governments with those of rich nations, it is said to have raised US$4 billion of private money already.

Targeting specific issues around food that can get tangible results seems to make sense. Despite those awful statistics on child death, there have been stunning gains in child nutrition. According to Lancet’s research, one-quarter of children in the poorest countries are stunted, in brain or body, but that figure was 40 percent in 1990. So, largely due to healthcare improvements and breast-feeding, the quarter of a billion children maimed by hunger has dropped to 165 million today, despite the population increase.

Reducing child malnutrition-related deaths further may be quite easily achieved and Bill Gates was upbeat at Saturday’s summit about the approach and the benefits.

“When children don’t get the right nutrition in the first 1,000 days — from the start of a woman’s pregnancy until her child’s second birthday — it affects not only their growth, but their brain development. From that point on, no matter how much we invest in the education of that child, they simply won’t achieve their potential and neither will their country,” Bill Gates said.

He said 20 percent of children are stunted before they are born, but giving their mothers the right food, vitamins and minerals can prevent that.

That is why British Secretary of State for Development Justine Greening launched a vitamin-rich “super potato” on Friday last week, intended to be grown by 3 million developing world farmers, whose children are in danger of blindness and anaemia. Funding for the development of the sweet potato has come from the British government and (you guessed it) the Gates Foundation.

However, a former British government adviser on sustainable development, professor Tim Lang of London’s City University, is critical of this narrow approach to the world’s growing food supply problem.

“We’ve had many summits talking about hunger since the oil and commodity price spike of 2007 [and] 2008, rightly, but not enough has happened to change the food system. My worry is that this one is shifting policy focus away from the complex picture of how food connects land, health, power and ecological damage. Technical fixes, like food supplements, may appear sensible, but they do little to address the systemic problems,” Lang said.

“David Cameron is on safe ground expressing concern about starving babies, because no one could possibly object to addressing that scandal. The unpalatable truth is that there are 870 million people starving, 2 billion malnourished, and 1.4 billion overweight and obese,” he said. “What I want to see is political leaders accepting that their task is to recalibrate the food system entirely. We have to recivilize food capitalism and recalibrate markets.”

Some non-governmental organizations object to corporations’ involvement in the New Alliance, but a big cause of comment on Saturday was that the really important player in food — China — was not on the guest list. China is Africa’s biggest trading partner and is likely to have no malnourished citizens by 2020, which, oddly, is a real threat to the world’s future food supply.

China’s meat consumption has quadrupled over the past 20 years, an inevitable result of a wealthier population, which means that more of the world’s crops going to feed animals, already consuming 40 percent of all the grains we farm.

In March, the world’s biggest traffic jam appeared off Brazil — 212 of the largest freight ships, some of them one-third of a kilometer long, were waiting to load soy beans and soy meal after Brazil’s greatest harvest ever. The queue of trucks from the Mato Grosso taking soy to the port of Santos stretched almost 25km.

When they finally loaded — and the delay caused hiccups in the world soy price — most of the ships were headed to deliver their protein-rich food to be eaten by Chinese pigs, fish and chickens.