The food benefits of a command economy

Almost all of the 300 experts at a two-day food forum in Rome this week agreed that between them they had all the answers to how to feed the world in 2050, but doubted they would have the political support to do it.

The two-day forum was organised after a warning by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) that if steps to increase food production were not taken now, 370 million people could be facing hunger by 2050, when the world's population is expected to hit more than nine billion.

The experts at the forum expressed their lack of confidence in the global political leadership in a vote during the last session. "It was a sad moment, but I feel the same way everyone felt - that the leadership is not sufficiently committed to eradicating hunger," said Kevin Cleaver, assistant president for programme management at UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the moderator of the last session.

Disgruntled members of farmers' unions and civil society, and even technocrats expressed their frustration with the way farming programmes were being implemented in many developing countries, without much thought given to local conditions or the beneficiaries.

Participants in an online discussion held parallel to the forum noted that hunger was not only a problem of food availability, but also lack of access to food, because of "insufficient political will to address key food security concerns, structural problems, and weak governance."

There was significant agreement on key issues: "We cannot do away with smallholder farmers," said Kwesi Atta-Krah, deputy director general of Bioversity International, a non-profit plant research organisation based in Rome. Research and development was necessary to boost production but not at the expense of the environment, and should ensure that "any new technology introduced can be used by women farmers".

Roberto Ridolfi, head of the EuropeAid Cooperation Office of the European Commission told IRIN: "Yes, we know the solutions, but it is the how."

The conference focused on Africa, where most of the population growth over the next four decades is expected to take place. FAO highlighted the challenges of farming there:

- Some 218 million people in Africa, around 30 percent of the total population, are estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition

- Cereal yields are still around 1.2 tonnes per hectare, compared to an average of some 3 tonnes per hectare in the developing world as a whole

- Fertilizer consumption in 2002 was only 13kg per hectare in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 73kg in the Middle East and North Africa, and 190kg in East Asia and the Pacific region

- Only 3 percent of land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, compared to more than 20 percent globally

- Up to 40 percent of the population of the region lives in landlocked countries, as against only 7.5 percent in other developing countries

- Transport costs in sub-Saharan Africa can be as high as 77 percent of the value of exports.

Can China show the way?

Africa could learn from China's achievements in improving food security on the back of market reforms that had benefited its small-scale farmers, said Michiel Keyzer, of the Centre for World Food Studies in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Most experts echoed the view: "Learn from examples, but do not copy".

''We have a saying in China, 'Cross the river by feeling the stones on the bed'. We learnt little by little from each experience; we have the same message for Africa''

Jikun Huang, agricultural advisor to the Chinese government, told IRIN that the Communist state had started liberalising its agriculture sector in the 1970s. "We did not follow any World Bank or IMF [International Monetary Fund] model. We have a saying in China, 'Cross the river by feeling the stones on the bed'. We learnt little by little from each experience; we have the same message for Africa."

Reform in the agriculture sector took China from struggling with one of the biggest famines in the 1960s to being the world's largest producer of maize and rice, and was cited as a model by the World Food Programme in its new World Hunger series.

Before the reforms kicked in, Chinese people were not allowed to cultivate private land, but in 1978 individual farm households were given the right to use collectively owned land on long-term leases. "This reform, known as the household responsibility system (HRS), also granted farmers access to markets where they could sell their surplus crops after meeting the collective's production quotas," the WFP series noted.

Huang commented, "Until 1984 the farmers did not receive any subsidies from us; from then on they were given hybrid seeds, we started building infrastructure, and investing in research and development, which was provided to them." The mandatory quantity of produce that each household had to contribute to the collective was also reduced.

The WFP report noted that between 1978 and 1998 the number of poor citizens in rural China fell from 260 million to 42 million. "More than half of that decrease occurred in the first six years." Food availability per capita rose from 1,717 calories in the 1960s to 2,328 calories in 1981 and 3,000 calories in the late 1990s. The average daily calorie intake for an adult is 2,100 calories.

Huang dismissed claims raised in the forum that China was casting its eyes on African land to meet its expanding food requirements. "The food [grown in Africa] will be too little for us - we can grow our own, or we can buy," he maintained.

"We have had many African governments approach us for assistance on technology; they ask us for rice hybrids. We ask them, 'Do you have the environment to grow them?' We tell them, 'You cannot just copy'. So what we are trying to do now by venturing into Africa is to build a model for them; set up the infrastructure and the irrigation systems, and show them how it is done."

Go local, even more local

Mark Rosegrant, from the US-based food policy think-tank, International Food Policy Research Institute, agreed that simply copying what has worked in China, for example in Zimbabwe, would not provide solutions. IFAD's Cleaver said that "adapting" the methods to suit the country's situation could be effective.

"You cannot compare apples with pears," another expert pointed out, citing the enormous size of the Chinese economy among the other factors that had contributed to reducing poverty in the world's biggest nation. 

Keyzer of the Centre for World Food Studies said African countries should perhaps look at a comparable province in China or India to see what had worked there.