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Access to food is a human need

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Hunger is something I knew all too well as a teenager living through the terrible years of conflict of the Nigerian-Biafran war.

My family then – as many families do when war happens – lost everything. Eating each day became a question mark. I saw many children die of kwashiorkor and other diseases because they didn’t have enough to eat.  

Now – many years later and secure in the knowledge I do have food on the table each night - when I read about rising and volatile food prices I can recall the desperation and the emptiness that was hunger  when I was a teenager. The sheer statistics today of the number of hungry people – almost a billion each night going to bed hungry – does not do justice to the emotional and physical impact of a person not having enough to eat. It does not do justice to the situation faced by 60 percent of the world’s hungry – women.
The specter of 2008 looms large today in the current debate about food – 2008 was a time when hunger pangs served as the fuel for discontent. 2008 should be our warning beacon as we ponder today the steps needed to ensure this and the next generation of people have enough to eat.

Food prices are not only rising, but they are also volatile and it’s expected this volatility will continue for some time. 

Uncertainty about prices – caused in part by climatic shocks – has only served to help drive up prices.
We do know there are measures which can be taken to help put food into the hands of those who need it most.  First and foremost, there’s the need to invest more in agricultural productivity and production.  In the last two years, countries like Burkina Faso and Malawi have demonstrated that and have doubled their output and moved from being net food importers to food exporters. 

Secondly we need greater investment in infrastructure so farmers don’t lose half their produce simply trying to get goods to market.  Farmers and others also need to be armed with risk management tools to help them better manage price volatility. Better weather forecasting would also help people to plan ahead. Greater transparency – more information on the quality and quantity of grain stocks – is also needed. 

Thirdly we know agriculture must be managed in a sustained way and farmers and we need to address climate change by addressing emissions from agriculture. 
We know too we have to look after those people who’re especially vulnerable to the devastating impacts of hunger – pregnant and breast-feeding women and children – especially those under two. 

The World Bank has been working in many of these areas but far more needs to be done. With so much known about the action needed, and with the benefit of history, it boils down to a simple question – what are we all waiting for? We do need global action to put food first.


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Director General, World Trade Organization

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