I recently participated in a conference organized by The Economist  on "the 9-billion question" - alas, the challenges to feed the world’s growing population. The conference was mostly attended by the private sector, with participant representatives ranging from international agro-industries to chemical companies and commercial banks. Discussions revolved around many topics, such as the stifling effect that uncertain regulation has on agro-food investments; the ever-increasing importance of strategic public-private partnerships; and the difficulties for leading research institutions and departments to reap the benefits of their investments in research and development.
Thus far, no big surprises. But I must confess that I did not expect the statement that food insecurity is not among the top global policy priorities. Yes, that is right. Even in the current anxious and hypersensitive world of high and volatile food prices, some would state that global food security is not among the top three global policy priorities.
But is it really possible that food security is not among the top global policy priorities?
Unfortunately, there is no official ranking of key global topics in the same way that there are weekly rankings of your favorite sports team. However, if one uses the Millennium Development Goals as an indicator for global policy priorities eradicating hunger is the first of the Millennium Development Goals, along with eradicating poverty. There are multiple specialized UN agencies dealing with food security from numerous angles—the FAO, IFAD, the WFP, UNICEF, and now the High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis. The Scale Up Nutrition country-led movement working to increase the effectiveness of nutrition programs is also testament to the international importance given to malnutrition. These are just some of the multiple efforts taking place alongside the work of the World Bank, regional development banks, international civil society organizations such as Oxfam and Save the Children, and foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And that list is just a small sample—there is also the current 67th UN General Assembly, which held a high-level meeting on scaling up nutrition, not to mention the G-20 summits, which have been assiduously talking about enhancing food security and addressing commodity price volatility.
So, doesn’t this mean that reducing food insecurity is a top global priority? Not so fast. Unlike extreme poverty, there has been little progress in the reduction of hunger in the last 15 years , insufficient to even reduce the absolute numbers of hungry people. Despite the large number of specialized agencies and coordination bodies aiming to reduce food insecurity, did any heads of state mention food security while addressing the General Assembly? Of the delegations present only a handful did.
Keep it on the radar!
Professor Lawrence Haddad, a well-known nutrition specialist from the Institute of Development Studies, makes a compelling case when talking about the political economy of national nutrition interventions. He argues that undernutrition is invisible, multisectoral, and irreversible after a short window of opportunity[i] . Mild and moderately undernourished children show few - if any - signs of physical or cognitive damage. Food, care, health, water, and sanitation all link to good nutrition, but are dispersed across multiple government agencies. These challenging characteristics of undernutrition put nutritional interventions at risk because of the lack of ownership and accountability by any one sector, let alone by coordination across sectors.
Haddad’s arguments refer just to interventions at the national level. And they refer just to one dimension of food insecurity, the nutritional aspect. Add to these challenges those posed by the production of food, food affordability, trade, food safety and geography, and the equation becomes even more difficult to solve.
If food security is not the burning priority at the national level, how can it be scaled up from the bottom and become a global priority? I am not sure about the current ranking of food security in the global policy priorities standings—but I know that this is one issue that we cannot afford to ignore, or move up and down the standings based on some monthly sharp price increase or decrease. Clearly, more efforts are needed to work together more effectively (heard that before?) and disseminate what we know, figure out what we do not, and what many are not even aware of. Going back to basics, we must ensure that we keep food security on the radar of global awareness.[ii]
[i] L. Haddad, “How can we build an enabling political environment to fight undernutrition in the future?” In “A Nutritious New World: Will the World Nutritiously Feed Its Growing Population?” Special Debate Section, European Journal of Development Research, forthcoming
[ii] SecureNutrition, a multi-partner knowledge platform initiative, is taking some of the needed first steps in this direction. To learn more about this knowledge platform, please visit www.securenutritionplatform.org