The UN Millennium Development Goals aim to achieve global food security. In its list of objectives, the first Millennium Development Goal states that the UN "is to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty" and "agricultural productivity is likely to play a key role in this if it is to be reached on time".
However, the UN has warned that the global economic crisis further "complicates and exacerbates the situation". David Nabarro, coordinator of the UN secretary-general's task force on the global food security crisis, said "price volatility and a global credit crunch are discouraging new planting and new investment, while food prices in many poor countries remain at historically high levels".
"We must learn the lessons of the financial crisis and act together with the rest of the world to meet the food challenge", said French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier, calling for a worldwide partnership on food and agriculture. This would include officials from the FAO, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, involve the establishment of a technical group like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and require "international financial mobilisation, in keeping with what is at stake to expand agriculture in developing countries".
Czech First Deputy Minister of Agriculture Ivo Hlaváč, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, argues that the development dimension must become an integral part of the common trade and agricultural policies of the EU. More emphasis on land cultivation and educating the workforces that cultivate crops is essential, according to Hlaváč.
Non-market investments and development cooperation will not have the desired effect from a long-term perspective unless education and infrastructure is developed, market barriers are removed and local markets are allowed function properly, the minister believes.
The European Parliament is calling for more European intiatives to ensure global food security. The House believes that €1 billion in EU aid earmarked for developing countries should be accompanied by fresh investment in agriculture. MEPs also want EU development aid in general to be redirected towards agriculture.
The EU assembly also argues that the EU should propose the creation of mechanisms to ensure that sufficient global food stocks are available. This could, the House argues, be done through the creation of a "worldwide stockholding obligation programme" to ensure the availability of food and provide a better basic storage system for key production inputs - such as protein, fertilisers, seeds and pesticides - in developing countries.
Several MEPs have noted that development aid should be refocused on agriculture, that farmers worldwide need decent incomes to enable them to continue producing enough, and that international trade negotiations need to produce a more balanced agreement for developing countries.
The European Landowners' Organisation (ELO) underlines that the "quality of the environment is closely related to the state of our farm land and forests". It notes that while "first-generation or pre-industrial agriculture" did not intrude on nature, the current "second-generation agriculture," involving science and technology, has increased productivity and output "at significant environmental cost".
ELO thus identifies moving to "third-generation agriculture, [...] maintaining and increasing productivity in a dramatically less environmentally intrusive way," as the main challenge in addressing the global food security challenge.
While ELO welcomes the global and EU focus on liberalising agricultural trade and ending protectionist policies in the developed world, it underlines that markets alone simply cannot deal with the pervasive environmental market failures surrounding food production. Cooperation with other stakeholders, such as NGOs, is needed, the organisation argues.
ELO laments that the farming sector is "in a situation of extreme imbalance in market power, squeezed as it is between powerful upstream input supply industries and the even more powerful downstream food processing and retailing sectors".
In order to trigger wider discussion of the food security challenge, ELO and Syngenta, a Swiss biotech company, established a new Forum for the Future of Agriculture in 2008, calling for a re-evaluation of European agricultural policy to address the double challenge of food and environmental security.
"We need a policy change. We cannot tackle tomorrow's challenges with yesterday's policy toolkit", according to Franz Fischler, chairman of both the Forum for the Future of Agriculture and the RISE Foundation, and a former EU agriculture commissioner. "We need a modern policy framework which enables our farmers to meet world food demand in an environmentally sustainable way. We must first identify the most important tools to meet these challenges, and then reassess the budgetary means required," Fischler argues
"Modern technology is essential to equip farmers to meet the challenge of growing more food on limited land in a sustainable way," said John Atkin, Syngenta's chief operating officer for crop protection products. "But some proposed regulations risk limiting the technological tools available to farmers, which could reduce their productivity. Lower productivity means more land under production, threatening forests and other natural habitats."
Syngenta CEO Mike Mack highlights the importance of science and research in finding alternative sources of energy, combating water scarcity and protecting biodiversity to ensure food security and environmental safety. "A full modern toolbox including biotechnology, crop protection and seed care is vital to provide solutions," Mack said.
"Our innovative products allow us to unlock the potential of plants, enabling us to do more with less – feed more people and produce more fuel and fibre, while using less water and decreasing the carbon footprint of agriculture," he continued.
Meanwhile green NGOs argue that GM crops do not increase yields, as "increased yield" is rather a result of reduced loss of yields. Friends of the Earth further argues that GM crops actually increase pesticide use, in particular that of herbicides. In the long term, it argues, weeds become resistant to the chemicals engineered by the crops that are designed to kill them.
Greenpeace argues that GMOs should not be released into the environment "as there is not adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health". The NGO is worried that GMOs spread throughout nature and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating non-genetically engineered environments and future generations in an "uncontrollable way". GMOs cannot be recalled once released into the environment.
The NGO also opposes all patents on plants and patents on their genes, because "life is not an industrial commodity" and the biodiversity and environmental integrity of the world's food supply is "too important to our survival".
Farmers and agri-cooperatives across Europe, represented by Copa-Cogeca, are increasingly concerned by the current crisis in agricultural markets. "Producer prices for many agricultural products have fallen substantially over recent months, while the cost of production has risen sharply," they deplore.
As global food markets have become volatile, Copa-Cogeca is calling on policymakers to urgently introduce measures to "help prevent the most extreme market fluctuations and make sure that the remaining market managing tools are used," in order to maintain sustainably-produced, high-quality food security in Europe.
Gert van Dijk, president of Cogeca, is also calling for more transparency in the food chain, and is urging the European Commission to "urgently step up its efforts and take action against the imbalances of power in the food chain".
"How can consumers be expected to pay the same amount for their food in supermarkets, while farmers are being paid less?," van Dijk asked, calling on the Commission to investigate price transmission mechanisms. He also argued that more support for cooperatives would lead to smoother running of the food chain and fairer competition, enabling farmers to obtain a larger proportion of the added value. "Whilst we do need to cooperate with other stakeholders in the food chain, no unfair commercial practices should be allowed," he summarised.
African farmers and parliamentarians, who recently toured European capitals to raise awareness of the disastrous effects of the current EU-ACP Economic Trade Agreements (EPAs) on food security in Africa, argued that if these agreements are not revisited, they will lead to the destruction of African small farmers' livelihoods, destroy the continent's fragile agro-industry and lead to increased food insecurity in African countries.
While the EPAs aim to open ACP and particularly African markets to Europe, via the principle of reciprocity, the different levels of development and competitiveness between European and African countries makes trading on an equal basis impossible, they argued. In addition, the EU's hesitation to eliminate export support to its farmers and to reduce its current level of agricultural subsidies means EPAs are still a long way away from being fair trade.
African farmers and their representatives are therefore urging the EU to respect principles of fair trade and stop dumping surplus agricultural products on Africa's smallholder farmers and producers. They are also stressing the need to address and discuss CAP-related issues (including agricultural subsidies and dumping) in the context of the EPA negotiations.
"The conditions imposed on us by EPAs are so harsh that Africa cannot export," deplored Pauline Ndoumou, a member of the National Assembly of Cameroon. "In the end, EPAs will kill Africa's agricultural production," Ndoumou added. "We need to protect African agriculture while it develops," she said.
Other African representatives agreed that African agriculture must go through a development phase before any trade liberalisation can take place, to allow the continent to compete fairly. "The current level of African trade does not allow reciprocity," they underlined. In addition, they complained that the EU ties allocation of its European Development Fund (EDF) aid to the signing of EPAs.
Via Campesina, the international peasants' movement, calls for the reorientation of agricultural policies towards small-scale production based on sustainable rural communities and local consumption models, which bring food sovereignty. This "genuine agrarian reform", it argues, uses a minimal amount of energy, creates jobs, respects cultural and biological diversity and helps fight global warming, as fertile soils capture the most CO2.
Via Campesina rejects "corporate-driven, monoculture-based production of agrofuels" and calls for an international moratorium on the production, trade and consumption of industrial agrofuels, until an "in-depth evaluation of the social and environment costs of the agrofuel boom, and of profits made by transnational companies in the processing and trade of raw materials".
The Fair Trade Movement underlines that small farmers are key to feeding the world. It argues that big global agribusiness, which drives small farmers off their land in poor countries, was instrumental in causing the current global food crisis.
The movement further argues that small farms are productive, environmentally-friendly and create jobs, unlike agribusiness, which "favours profit over sustainability and human rights".
Stephen Devereux, a research fellow at the UK Institute of Development Studies looks beyond technical factors tow political explanations to find answers to current food shortages and famines in a book entitled 'The New Famines - Why Famines Persist in an Era of Globalisation'.
If in the past, attempts to understand famines focused on the causes and consequences of food production decline, "contemporary famines are either caused deliberately or they are not prevented when they could and should have been. Many recent famines are associated with catastrophic governance failures or collapses of the social order," Devereux writes.
Even when a livelihood shock, such as drought, triggers a food shortage, it is the failure of local, national and international responses that allows subsequent food shortages to evolve into a famine, Devereux writes. "The distribution of food within a country is a political issue" and government action or inaction determine the severity of famine conditions. Priority in food security is often given to urban areas, which hosts the "most important electorate".
He also notes that many agrarian policies, especially in pricing agricultural commodities, discriminate against rural areas. "Governments often keep prices of basic grain at such artificially low levels that subsistence producers cannot accumulate enough capital to make investments to improve their production," and are effectively prevented from getting out of their precarious situation.
When a government monopolises trade, Devereux explains how farmers may find that they are free to grow cash crops for export, but under penalty of law, are only able to sell their crops to government buyers at prices far below the world market price. The government then is free to sell the crop on the world market at full price, pocketing the difference.
This creates an artificial "poverty trap", from which even the most hard-working and motivated farmers may not escape, he laments.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a World Bank initiative, notes that policy options for addressing food security include developing high-value and under-utilised crops in rain-fed areas; increasing the full range of agricultural exports and imports, including organic and fair trade products; reducing transaction costs for small-scale producers; strengthening local markets; food safety nets; promoting agro-insurance; and improving food safety and quality.
Price shocks and extreme weather events call for a global system of monitoring and intervention for the timely prediction of major food shortages and price-induced hunger, IAASTD argues.
Guy Riba, deputy director of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), underlines that challenges related to sustainable food production cannot be solved by technological research alone, with an integrated approach key to addressing them.
According to Riba, this means integrating into a single system advances made in genetics, agronomy, pathology, technology, economy and sociology, for example. "We are losing a lot of time, because some very interesting innovations are not being integrated. For example, what is the point in increasing the yield of some crops in one region if neither the farmer organisation nor the infrastructure to get the crops to market is improved?," he noted (see EurActiv interview).
Another research challenge is to improve diagnosis of diseases and pests, as well as of water, soil and air quality, because "we are currently losing a lot of time and money on identifying the problems" once, for example, a new plant disease occurs, Riba explained.
The United States' development aid agency, USAID, proposes the following to increase agricultural productivity to boost rural income and food security: increasing agricultural science and technology; securing property rights and access to finance; enhancing human capital through education and improved health, conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms; promoting governance based on democracy; and promoting principles of accountability and transparency in public institutions to protect vulnerable members of society.
International agency Oxfam highlights that "decades of underinvestment in agriculture, coupled with the increasing threat of climate change, mean that despite recent price falls, future food security is by no means guaranteed, and in fact the situation could get worse".
The agency argues that lasting solutions to the global food crisis include "adequate investment in agriculture, fairer trade, the redistribution of resources, and action on climate change".