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GLOBAL: G8's historic shift needs applause

Johannesburg, 13 July 2009 (IRIN) - By Christopher Barrett

The announcement by President Barack Obama and the other G8 leaders of a US$20 billion three-year investment in developing-country agriculture marks a historic shift that merits widespread applause. 

Throughout history, agricultural productivity growth and more efficient, inclusive food distribution systems have been the primary engines of economic growth, poverty reduction and improved human health in North America, Europe and East Asia.
 
But after the successes of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, the world grew complacent about the threat of hunger and the need to invest in developing-country agriculture. As a result, global agricultural research fell sharply over a quarter century, yield growth rates slowed and global stocks of cereals declined, leading to the 2008 price spikes.

The problem has been most acute in the poorest countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where yield gaps are highest, markets perform poorly, and the humanitarian consequences of underperforming agricultural systems are catastrophic.

Last year's global food crisis awakened world leaders to the need for renewed commitment to agriculture in charting a sustainable path out of chronic poverty for the one billion people who live on a dollar a day or less.

Three-quarters of the world's poor depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Agriculture affects the rest of the poor too, because food is their single biggest expenditure. Poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, and low educational attainment and agricultural productivity are self-reinforcing processes.

Research shows that agricultural productivity growth is the key to escaping this trap; the World Bank estimates that economic growth from agriculture generates three times more poverty reduction than growth in any other sector.

''The global humanitarian response system can meet emergency needs, but the world must cease relying on food aid as if it were an effective tool to address the underlying causes of poverty and hunger''
Reducing poverty means expanding the productivity of the poor's labour, land and livestock. This demands technological advances that increase sustainable yields, and institutional improvements that raise the returns on each unit the poor produce. It also requires fostering conditions that encourage the poor to invest in assets on which their and their children's productivity depends.

Secure property rights, good governance, sound financial systems, reliable risk-management options, and adequate physical and institutional infrastructure to facilitate commerce are essential if farmers are to take up promising new technologies, enter remunerative markets, invest in their futures and permanently escape poverty.

A longer-term perspective is needed than has prevailed these past few decades. The G8 announcement explicitly recognizes that food aid is necessary to relieve unnecessary human suffering, but it is a short-term palliative, not a long-term solution.

Natural and manmade disasters will, unfortunately, continue to throw millions into sudden food insecurity each year. The global humanitarian response system can meet emergency needs, but the world must cease relying on food aid as if it were an effective tool to address the underlying causes of poverty and hunger.

The other key dimension of a long-term perspective is sustainable productivity growth. We must steward natural resources carefully.

The developing world needs what Sir Gordon Conway, President of the Royal Geographical Society and author, has called "a doubly green revolution", based on rigorous scientific experimentation to develop the range of technologies, institutional arrangements and policies appropriate to the highly varied agro-ecological conditions in which an unacceptably large share of humanity finds itself trapped in poverty.

Increased attention must explicitly be paid to improving water access and management for poor farmers, and to conserving and rehabilitating valuable soils required for improved seeds to deliver on their promise.

The G8 launched the agricultural development initiative simultaneously with a resolution on redoubling efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. If we do not get developing-country agriculture moving, population and income growth will compel farmers to clear vast swathes of tropical forests, aggravating greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating climate change.

The consequences of climate change are expected to hit the rural poor in developing countries especially hard. As US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said last month, "The question is not whether we can end hunger, it's whether we will." The G8 announcement of a developing country food security fund is a welcome step in that direction.

Christopher B. Barrett is the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management and International Professor of Agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, USA. He is the author, with Dan Maxwell, of the award-winning Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role, and former editor of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

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Theme (s): Aid Policy, Food Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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