The Monitor's View

How to feed the hungry billion

The global food crisis has slipped from the headlines. The world can solve it. Will it?

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Before the global economic crisis, there was the global food crisis. Last year, soaring prices for basic foods sparked riots in about 30 countries. In June, the UN held a summit to tackle it. In July, the G-8 pledged to act. But in the fall, the floor fell out from the financial markets. Now, like a mountain of maize, countries' economic worries threaten to bury their concerns about rising world hunger.

Food prices have eased on global markets, but they remain high in many countries. Price volatility, the credit crunch, and shrinking coffers (both private and government) are making it harder for farmers to get loans to invest and plant.

At a follow-up conference on hunger this week, the United Nations announced that 40 million people joined the ranks of the "undernourished" in 2008, bringing the number of hungry people to nearly 1 billion – or roughly 1 in 7. Yet donor nations have delivered only a trickle of the $22 billion they pledged last year.

Meanwhile, food production must double by 2050 to head off mass hunger amid a global population surge from 6.5 billion to 9 billion, the UN said.

The world can solve this problem. In the 1960s, a technological "green revolution" in grain yields, irrigation, and fertilizers greatly increased food production, especially in Asia. Allowing communal farmers to earn and trade privately went a long way to alleviate hunger in post-Mao China. And economic growth and social programs have helped in Latin America.

But Africa stands stubbornly off the track of agricultural progress, and hunger still plagues many countries in South Asia. Climate change is expected to exacerbate production problems in these places, and once the world economy begins to recover, expect food prices to rise again as demand increases and more food is diverted to bio-fuels.

Once again, the world knows how to respond, but will it?

Tackling climate change, ending wars, and reducing agricultural subsidies that clog trade channels are three overarching needs. But they are also difficult to achieve.

Relatively quick and substantial progress can be made if nations rededicate themselves to international aid for agriculture, which has dropped from 13 percent of all development aid in the early 1980s to only 3 percent now. They must also better coordinate among themselves and with nonprofits.

Simply improving food storage could increase production by 30 to 40 percent in many poor countries, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Building roads could get more goods to market. In sub-Saharan Africa, just 4 percent of arable land is irrigated, compared with 38 percent in Asia.

Research needs a boost, too, as adapting pests, for instance, erode yields over time.

The FAO estimates that only $30 billion per year, invested in farm infrastructure and production, could eradicate the root causes of world hunger by 2025. That compares with the $825 billion stimulus package that the US Congress is debating.

Last summer, political momentum was building behind a UN effort to increase agri-aid, focus on small farmers, and better coordinate antihunger efforts. The momentum must be maintained.

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