Despite its constraints with a long-term budget decided every seven years, the EU is strongly engaged in a strategy to last at least 20 years for Sahel, the zone of transition between the Sahara desert in the North and the Sudanian savannah in the south, Commission officials said.
Philippe Thomas, head of the food crises and food economy section at DG Devco (Development and Cooperation), said that the whole concept of the new AGIR alliance (see background) was built around the EU’s new approach of building resilience, based on lessons learned from previous food crises.
Resilience is the ability of an individual, a household, a community, a country or a region to withstand, adapt, and quickly recover from stresses and shocks such as drought, violence, conflict or natural disaster.
“In the Sahel, over the nine last agricultural campaigns, we have had six years of food crisis. But those have been of different nature,” Thomas said. Among them was the 2008 price crisis, which prompted the EU to put in place the food facility and to unblock €1 billion.
“This is going to continue. At first we thought this was a temporary shock, mostly due to market speculation. Actually it’s more complicated. Among the causes is the fact that we [the EU] have changed policies,” he said.
Thomas referred to the Union's abandoned policy of excess production under the Common Agricultural Policy. Without this excess production and low prices, any small climate shock in the USA or Russia or the slightest rumour on production shortages would prompt prices to explode, affecting the poorest countries, he said.
How to address these issues, he said, was ranking high in the priorities of the current UK G8 presidency, as well as of the 2014 Russian G8 presidency. This was due to the fact that a major transition in food policy was taking place, which he compared to the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
The change, the official said, was due to the reduction in the use of phosphate fertilisers and the transition to biological agriculture. Europe could attain this goal in 30-40 years, he said, while paradoxically the developing countries could attain this goal much earlier, but only under the condition that agriculture producers would master a number of techniques.
Investment in sustainable agriculture is a major pillar for AGIR, the Commission official said. He added that the humanitarian response would continue when necessary, as it has proved to be much needed in 2012.
“But if the EU would resort only to the humanitarian action and would prove incapable of pre-empting the crises and the challenges of the 20 next years, then we are running against the wall,” Thomas said.
The meaning of the alliance is that the EU has sought to pull is political weight to bring on the table the other partners – the USA, the World Bank, UNICEF, WFP, the EU member states and African governments, to build something coherent for the region.
Similar alliances existed in other areas, such as in the Horn of Africa, where there the US was in the lead, the Commission official said, calling this a "division of tasks, not competition". The EU is better placed than any other international player to be the catalyst for the AGIR alliance, he said.
Commitment ‘beyond any doubt’
To illustrate the Commission’s commitment to development aid, Thomas said that only two people used to accompany Commission President José Manuel Barroso at the sessions at the level of head of state at G8 summits, and one of them was the head of unit for Rural Development, Food Security and Nutrition in DG Devco, Jean-Pierre Halkin.
He also made it plain that priority had been give to AGIR in the draft budget for 2014-2020.
What is new, he said, is that in the usual choice between priorities, €1 billion per year had been earmarked for food security. The initial proposal has been more modest, he said, but unfolding events compelled the Commission to increase this budget.
Another change was that in the past, the EU has healed the symptoms, but had done little to address their causes.
Thomas argued that this time the EU won’t arrive “as firemen”, but would rather build, on the basis of the seven-year EU budget, capacities in individual countries to cope with the crises. The Sahel region is capable of feeding itself, but to achieve this, investment needs to be made, he insisted.
Asked if he thought the development budget would be slashed at the upcoming EU budget summit on 7-8 February, with individual countries asking for cuts in many areas of spending, he said:
“Maybe some [EU] heads of state and government don’t have as a priority Africa’s development, but if we look at France, Spain, Italy, I don’t think there are a lot of people there who would like to see Africa to drown in food crisis, to generate migration flows, to witness the growth of terrorism. All these issues are linked.”
Thomas also referred to the fact that French President François Hollande spoke of a world food strategic reserve with Jacques Diouf, who heads the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
“I don’t see either Germany or the Netherlands saying that food security and climate change are not global challenges. And I don’t see the UK saying something different at G8 level. It’s a pretty consensual topic,” Thomas said.
Hollande indeed has launched a global campaign to win support for strategic stocks of agricultural commodities, but Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said last autumn that was not the best way to tame food prices, advising a focus on agricultural investment to boost production.