Global gathering of experts attacks vital problem
McGill University’s International Conference on Global Food Security was hailed today as a resounding success by participants, as the three-day event came to a conclusion.
Bringing together more than 360 participants from 17 countries, with representatives of 18 international organizations and a host of student participants, as well as academics and representatives of industry, the conference provided an important forum for direct exchange between experts, scholars and policy makers from developed and developing countries, NGOs, farmers’ organizations and the business community that will provide the basis for sustainable solutions to declining world food stocks and sharply rising food prices.
“The McGill Conference is exactly the kind of event we need to try to address these complex issues that transcend national boundaries and require innovative and international solutions,” said the Rt.-Hon. Joe Clark, former prime minister of Canada and a professor at McGill’s Centre for Developing Area Studies, who co-chaired the Conference. “The solutions to the food crisis – and it is a real and important crisis – will not come from individual governments or groups working on their own. The solutions will come from experts at all levels working together, and that’s exactly what this conference was able to achieve in a very short time.”
Key points emerged from the Conference deliberations:
Causes and Effects of the Global Food Crisis
- The world has experienced similar situations of food insecurity and unavailability in the past, for example in the late 1950s and in the mid 1970s.
- Over the past 30 years, investments in agriculture and food production have declined. This has been coupled with a decline in Official Development Assistance funding from 18 per cent to less than 4 per cent of the total ODA from the OECD countries. In developing countries, agriculture contributes 29 per cent of gross domestic products, although developing countries have invested less than 4 per cent of GDP in agriculture.
- This decline in investment, coupled with other factors such as increasing populations, greater purchasing power in emerging economies, increased energy costs, the diversion of land and water resources from food and feed production to biofuel, declining world stocks of grains, extreme floods and droughts and distortions in agriculture and food markets, have combined to bring astonishingly sharp rises in food prices which have led to the current global food crisis.
- The crisis has affected countries, and households, in different ways based on income levels. For example, in a rich country such a Canada, we spend less than 10 per cent of our income on food, and food inflation was less than 3 per cent. However, for the poorest segment of the Canadian population, the number of people who supplement their food supplies from food banks has increased dramatically.
- In an emerging economy such as China, the country was able to shield the average urban population from price hikes through subsidization and the restriction of exports. In the rural areas, food prices were allowed to rise, in order to benefit the farming community. China has stopped new biofuel projects.
- Haiti, as a least-developed country, showed an inability to cope with the food price increases and continued to slide deeper into poverty and hunger, and this stalled economic growth. These have all led to social and political instability.
A number of encouraging success stories have been cited:
- The development of post-harvest technology in India, which resulted in a reduction of food losses due to spoilage and wastage, contributed to 40 per cent more food being available – a development in which McGill University scientists played a major role.
- The development of new rice varieties in Africa which contributed to higher yields, funded by CIDA.
- The application of water harvesting technology in the highlands of Ethiopia, with the aid of Montreal based consulting firm of Hydrosult, which helped overcome drought and massive starvation in rural areas of the Amhara Region
The Way Forward
- Given such complex problems, we need a variety of solutions tailored to each situation.
- Agriculture has been an engine for development in Europe and North America and parts of Asia. In this context, we need to reinforce the importance of the agricultural sector for economic development in developing countries. This will invigorate economies and generate wealth to help battle poverty.
- There is an urgent need for increased investment in rural infrastructure (roads, power, irrigation, post-harvest storage and distribution, processing facilities) for agricultural production, and for research and development, and building capacity.
- Government policies should allow farmers to take advantage of local, regional and international market opportunities, through the provision of credit, regulatory and fiscal frameworks, pillars of environmental sustainability, risk management, and rights to resources.
- International and local relief organizations should be supported in their efforts to provide immediate relief for vulnerable populations, and assist them in building their assets and productive capacity to transition into a level of food security.
- Special attention should be paid to sound feeding programs for children to reduce the negative long-term effects of malnutrition on human development.