Convinced the global food crisis has no quick fixes, the international community is beginning to team up with agriculture experts to find long-term solutions to the challenge – with a particular emphasis on Africa.
Taking some cues from past successes – especially from the first "green revolution" in Asia – and mixing them with new technologies, aid donors and agriculture experts are placing new emphasis on infrastructure development, efficient farm-to-market systems, and distribution of new and better seeds and fertilizers.
The new focus is also increasingly on the small farmer who, as Kofi Annan notes, in the case of Africa is more often than not a woman.
"If we take the food crisis seriously … we can turn many of the African countries into breadbaskets," says Mr. Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general. Noting that the African farmer is "perhaps the only farmer in the world who takes all the risk herself," Annan says addressing Africa's "silent hunger" will require a shift beyond better farming techniques. What is needed, he adds, are partnerships that encompass governments and international donors who can provide better technologies, infrastructure, and inputs such as seed and fertilizer.
The US government signaled its endorsement of such partnerships with its announcement last week of a collaborative initiative between the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or Agra.
The MCC, which rewards the developing world's best-governed countries with grants to combat poverty, is responding to the food crisis by putting greater emphasis specifically on Africa's agriculture sector. Already the MCC, founded in 2004, has made more than half its total grants of $5.5 billion in agriculture and rural development, with $1.7 billion going to African agriculture alone.
According to Annan, who is Agra's chairman, the partnership will combine MCC's expertise in infrastructure development with Agra's agricultural knowledge and its close association with small farmers. "Collaborations such as ours are essential to putting in place long-term solutions to the food crisis," said Annan, who was in Washington Friday to sign an agreement with MCC.
New emphasis on agriculture
The US initiative is one example of a broader global recognition of a need for new ideas for addressing the food crisis.
The World Bank dedicated its latest annual report on development to the challenge of increasing global food production – the first time, experts note, a major international financing institution has focused on agriculture.
And the EU, which with a total of about $15 billion in 2006 is the world's largest provider of development aid, recently announced that it would increase the percentage of its total assistance going to agriculture and rural development from 9 percent to 12.5 percent.
"This is a global trend in development assistance, as we see in the example of the US initiative, and the European Union is taking the same path," says Laurent Javaudin, agriculture attaché at the EU Commission's mission in Washington.
"The idea is to help improve the whole food chain and not just the farmer," says Mr. Javaudin. "It's one thing to have the crop growing, but if you can't move it around to markets and consumers, it's not much better."
Indeed, Annan notes that 40 percent of Africa's crops are lost after harvest – this on a continent where 200 million people live with chronic hunger.
Across the developing world but in particular in Africa, agriculture lost its starring role as a key component of development as populations shifted to cities, say some experts. In some countries, misguided land policies also wreaked havoc on food production. One result, they add, is that Africa, which in the 1960s was a food exporter, has become a food importer – and particularly susceptible to the shock of suddenly higher food prices and tightened food supplies.
Robert Townsend, a senior economist with the World Bank, says the bank decided to put a new emphasis on African agriculture when it realized that much of the continent was falling further and further behind in meeting poverty reduction goals. "There's an increased recognition of agriculture's role in poverty reduction."
Still, this does not mean that food production can prosper everywhere or that one policy can and should be implemented everywhere. "The focus should be on those areas with the greatest growth potential," Mr. Townsend says.
Many African food production experts agree. "We can't invest everywhere," says Akin Adesina, vice president of Agra. "We need to optimize our investment around the bread basket areas." Infrastructure development will be crucial, he adds, noting that "Africa has less infrastructure than when India embarked on its green revolution."
MCC chairman John Danilovich says the emphasis on efficiency and transparency that guides the institution's governance initiatives will continue.
Still, some experts say the new international initiatives are likely to be hampered to some degree by local mistrust of international institutions and Western countries. For some, they say, such efforts are associated with the imposition of genetically modified seeds, or international trade policies and subsidy regimes that favor the importation of foreign food products.
Some Africa development experts insist globalization and increased international trade have been Africa's undoing. But others, including some food policy experts, say global trade will be a key player in the long-term solution to Africa's food and development challenges.
"A solid rules-based trade system is absolutely essential," says Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. Citing just one example, he says, "Today's tremendously high rice prices [are] a result of a lack of free trade, not too much free trade."