World Food Day: It's no good simply preparing for crises. We have to prevent them altogether

The global food system faces growing demand from population rises and dwindling supplies of some natural resources. How can these be reconciled?

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Last summer, a wave of droughts and heat swept across parts of the globe as diverse as the United States, India and Russia, destroying expected harvests.

The resulting scarcity of food on the market has driven food prices to dangerously high levels.

For well-off families, this represents an inconvenience, but in poor households it means a threat to life and livelihood. The last major food price crisis, in 2007-2008, drove 100 million people into poverty and touched off civil unrest in many countries. This year’s poor harvest is already affecting prices and livelihoods. But the fact that it hasn't triggered a crisis highlights the progress over the past few years in strengthening global food security.

Unprepared

When the crisis hit in 2007, the global system was unprepared. Food was scarce, and the reactions of many traders and policymakers – hoarding, speculating and instituting export bans — made it even scarcer. With no systems in place to track and share information about food supplies, we had no reliable overview of where food was needed or could be found. As tens of millions were driven into hunger, the world scrambled to mobilize the resources to respond.

Today, we have better systems in place to warn us of impending crises, track their scope, and co-ordinate the global response, thanks in part to new initiatives launched by the G20. We have adapted to the idea that volatility and crisis will be an unavoidable part of our future, and that we will need to be prepared.

What makes me hopeful, however, is the renewed focus on not just preparing for crises, but preventing them altogether.

The food system currently faces the dual challenge of growing demand – from a population that will reach nine billion by 2050 – and dwindling supplies of the natural resources we use to produce food: water, land, ecosystems, soil.

Sustainability

Meeting global demand in a sustainable way will require us to produce more food with less resources. There are many ways this can be achieved – new seeds that can triple production; better infrastructure can reduce the 30% rate of post-harvest waste; drip irrigation can reduce water usage by up to 50%.

However achieving that growth sustainably will require an enormous amount of investment – a 50% increase over current levels, totaling an additional USD 83 billion per year, according to one UN estimate. This must come from both the public sector, for infrastructure, research and extension programmes; as well as from the private sector, to deploy finance, technology and logistics to strengthen supply chains.

The private sector has been an under-utilized resource to date, in efforts to strengthen global food security. Companies have the know-how and resources to scale up efficient production, improving both livelihoods and food supplies for local communities — but they cannot do it alone. They need conducive policy environments as well as partnerships with local communities.

Co-ordination

Mobilizing a significant increase in investment will require a co-ordinated effort between public and private sectors as well as civil society. Financing mechanisms, the right policy environment, clear local benefits, and shared commitment are all necessary. Efforts such as the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture initiative bring relevant leaders together to co-ordinate investments and partnership programs at global, regional and national levels.

A recent example was the G8 announcement of USD 3 billion in private-sector investments in African agriculture, together with complementary investments by donors and policy commitments by governments. This was mobilized by G8, African and private-sector leaders with support from Grow Africa, a partnership of the African Union, NEPAD and the Forum which aims to facilitate such efforts on an ongoing basis.

The human cost of hunger is staggering, yet I look forward to the day when food crises are a distant memory. Until then, let’s mobilize a new level of coordinated investment in our global food system.

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