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The World Food Problem

“The World Food Problem” is a phrase familiar from the 1970s, but one that has largely lain dormant for the last decade: throughout the 1980s, concern was less with world food supplies and prices than with the problem of hunger and with individual access to food. The International Conference on Nutrition in 1992 was a high-water mark for this perspective. Now, although hunger and malnutrition remain grave problems throughout the world, issues to do with world food supplies have re-emerged on the international agenda. There are several reasons for this: the slowdown in the rate of increase in yields of the main cereal staples gives cause for concern that the Green Revolution is running out of steam; the problems of environmental damage and pesticide resistance associated with industrial agriculture are receiving more attention; there are worries about the impact of GATT on food prices and food aid; and, of course, population continues to increase relentlessly, by over 100 million people a year.

All these factors nave sparked a new interest in the future ability of the world to feed itself. Many organizations are now thinking about the future of the world food system: FAO to 2010, the International Food Policy Research Institute to 2020, a group of American researchers to 2050. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research has also commissioned a “vision paper” for the next century.

When all these initiatives were placed before the Advisory Group on Nutrition and the Sub-Committee on Nutrition earlier this year, it was felt that there was some danger that the perspective of the poor and hungry would be lost in the plethora of initiatives on food production. It was to try and preserve an appropriate balance in the discussion between supply factors and demand factors that the following statement was prepared.

(contributed by Simon Maxwell, Institute of Development Studies University of Sussex, and member of the Advisory Group on Nutrition of the ACC/SCN)

Statement by the Advisory Group on Nutrition on The World Food Problem, Hunger and Malnutrition.

In the two decades since the World Food Conference of 1974, the questions of how much food the world grows and how that food is distributed have rightly remained at the centre of international debate and concern. For most of that time, the main emphasis has been on access to food and on distribution, rather than on supply. We believe that emphasis was correct. It directed discussion to questions of food entitlement, household and individual food security and matters related to the quality and safety of food for human consumption. These concerns have been prominent in international statements, most recently the International Conference on Nutrition in 1992. International policy commitments have in turn been associated with modest increases in resource flows to nutrition and related fields, not just to save lives in famines, but also to help achieve food and nutrition goals in the longer term.

Most recently, an alternative set of concerns has re-emerged, which has begun to direct attention back to food supply. Rising population, increasing urbanization, doubts about the sustainability of intensive farming and irrigation systems and an apparent slow-down in the rate of increase of yields of the major food staples, are factors which have led some observers to argue for a higher priority to be given to agricultural research and to investments designed to increase agricultural productivity and production. The case is said to be strengthened by structural changes in the world economy, including the changes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and the effect of the GATT agreement on world food trade.

Our continuing concern about undernutrition and household food security leads us to conclude that agricultural research and investment will have their greatest impact on reducing hunger if they are planned specifically to take account of the changing geographical and socio-economic characteristics of hunger in the world, and of poor people’s perceptions of their malnutrition-related problems. In the immediate future, this will mean increased attention to the production potential of poor people living in resource-poor areas, to the promotion of secure and sustainable livelihoods in Africa, to the needs of female-headed households and peri-urban populations and to measures which will mitigate the appalling effects of severe drought and conflict on food supply, food prices and the command over food by poor people.

Because it is imperative to assure a sustainable and sufficient world food supply, it is necessary to keep under review investments in agricultural research, agriculture and other components affecting supply. We believe that increased investments in these areas are entirely in concert with the massive programmes of action required to achieve the goals set by the International Conference on Nutrition. At the same time, and in a world where aid resources are increasingly scarce, the additional resources required to address issues related to world food supply should not be sought at the expense of those needed to strengthen the effective demand of the deprived for food, health and household care. In our analysis of the world food problem, household access to food remains one of the most urgent food problems for the foreseeable future.

Source: Report on the Twenty-First Session of the Sub-Committee on Nutrition, UNICEF, New York, 7-11 March 1994.

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