Twenty years ago, when leaders met to address the problem of world hunger at a major world food conference, impending natural disasters and corresponding food shortages loomed on the horizon - famine in the Sahel, devastating cyclones in India and Bangladesh, and drought in the USSR. With 70 million new mouths to feed every year, many experts warned about widespread human suffering and serious threats to international order.
Others argued that human ingenuity would be able to overcome these trends. And, indeed, remarkable gains have been made. The Green Revolution introduced high-yielding crop varieties and new technology, which, coupled with economic reforms, enabled countries such as Thailand and Malaysia to achieve agricultural growth rates of more than 5 percent annually. In Kenya, maize yields quadrupled in the first half of the 1970s, while Colombian rice production more than doubled by 1975.
Beyond the old debate
All too often discussion about global food security has remained mired in debate between (a) predictions of massive food shortfalls and human misery and (b) suggestions that humanity need not fear, because human ingenuity will more than match any conceivable combination of demographic, environmental, and economic trends. This week leaders from around the world are meeting at the World Food Summit in Rome to adopt sensible strategies for the future.
The challenge of global food security is enormous. Global population is now growing by approximately 100 million annually - the greatest number ever, according to demographers. Simultaneously, global grain reserves have reached record lows. Sadly, the impressive gains in productivity of the Green Revolution seem to be reaching a plateau, and the prospect of inexorable yield increases is far from certain. Despite a dramatic drop in the percentage of the world's population facing food shortfalls - from 36 percent in 1969 to 20 percent in 1990 - there remain some 800 million malnourished people around the world.
Studies suggest that, without concerted action now, global food security will be increasingly strained - particularly in the world's poorest regions. Requirements for food aid will skyrocket, while supply remains constant.
Several underlying causes drive levels of food insecurity higher: war and civil strife; inappropriate social and economic policies; inadequate research and technology; trade barriers; rapid population growth; environmental degradation; poverty; gender inequality; and poor health. Improving global food security requires addressing these causes comprehensively.
Improvement is essential to American security interests and leadership in promoting international stability and economic progress. The US has developed an integrated approach to global food security, with particular emphasis on four broad priorities.
First and foremost, we have underscored the sovereign responsibility that nations have to develop the appropriate political, social, and economic policy framework that must undergird efforts on behalf of prosperity and food security. This begins with respect for human rights and democracy, and the engagement of all of society in decisionmaking - including full rights and participation for women. It also requires provision of basic services, such as transportation, communications, education, health, family planning, and sanitation. And it requires agricultural and international trade policies that support open markets and business initiative - unleashing the genius of the marketplace on this most basic of challenges: feeding the world.
Second, countries must work together to address the forces fueling rapid population growth. The 1994 Cairo Population Conference forged a new consensus that family planning and development can each play a role in slowing down the pace of population growth, but they work best when pursued together. Strategies for stabilizing population - quality health care, education, empowering women, and ensuring opportunity for all - are mutually reinforcing steps toward enhancing the ability of individuals and societies to meet their needs.
Third, we face a set of environmental challenges that will increasingly impinge on agricultural productivity. The fisheries and forests on which millions depend must be conserved and managed sustainably. Desertification and erosion of arable land, which can rapidly displace large numbers of people, must be combated and reversed. We must also protect biological diversity, as future success in improving plant varieties and animal breeds will depend on preservation of a diverse biological resource base accessible to scientists, farmers, and fishers around the world.
Last, we must continue to invest in the development and adoption of agricultural and other research and technology, which provide the foundation for technological innovation and productivity growth. Recent levels of international support for agricultural and other research are widely considered inadequate to meet anticipated growth in demand for food. Developing countries especially need to invest in research and dissemination of knowledge, genetic resources, and appropriate technologies.
Climate for competition
Global food security is a shared interest for all Americans and the international community. Hunger is a powerful force for strife, environmental destruction, and underdevelopment - situations that not only spur the US to answer a humanitarian call for emergency disaster assistance but also stymie our efforts to build a peaceful world and a flourishing international economy in which American business can compete and our products can win.
Working with like-minded countries, the US can help promote global food security and brighten the future for our citizens and the world. That is our aim at the World Food Summit, and in the long-term effort to follow up.
*Timothy Wirth is under secretary of state for global affairs.