On eve of UN food summit: 20 best ways to feed the hungry

The UN's food summit begins in Rome Monday. The lead-up to the summit has been mired in disputes, but one study highlights 20 innovative programs that have helped feed people worldwide.

Giulio Napolitano/Reuters
U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Director-General Jacques Diouf speaks on a telephone during a 24-hour fast at the agency's headquarters in Rome November 13, 2009. A U.N. world food summit starts on Monday in Rome.

On the eve of a world food summit that will acknowledge 100 million additional hungry mouths in the world since last year, a new study chronicles 20 good ideas that have helped feed millions of people.

The initiatives range from milk cooperatives among women farmers in India to land reform in China, and they demonstrate what it takes to boost food production.

The 20 initiatives are showcased in a report titled "Millions Fed" by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington. It will be presented at this week's three-day world food summit in Rome, which starts Monday.

The search for the Oscars of food-production success resulted from frustration. Much of the focus on the 2008 food crisis has been on what went wrong. But people at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded the study, "were thinking about successes, not failure," says IFPRI director Joachim von Braun.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, which is hosting next week's summit, says the number of hungry people has topped 1 billion for the first time since global hunger estimates were first made in 1970.

But David Spielman, a research fellow with IFPRI's regional team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has another way of looking at that statistic: roughly 1 billion people were hungry in the late 1950s, when that number constituted about one-third of the world's population.

"The world's population has doubled since the 1950s, and today more than 5 billion people are food secure," Mr. Spielman says.

That's actually significant progress, he adds, but "the successes have been overshadowed by the doom and gloom."

The "Millions Fed" study goes beyond listing successes to detailing why and how each case was successful.

China's land-tenure reform has perhaps had more impact on food production than any initiative in history, IFPRI says. It worked in part because it gave millions of peasants the incentive to produce.

Other projects were successes because they teamed increased production with infrastructure and marketing improvements.

The findings may be a bright spot at a world food summit that is already mired in disputes over targets for agriculture investment and ending global hunger. A draft declaration had called for eradicating hunger by 2025, but some delegations balked. They said an existing UN target of halving hunger by 2015 is already falling out of reach.

Many food-production experts concur that food security won't be substantially addressed until developing countries increase both agricultural aid and investment in the farm sector.

But a commitment to increasing the percentage of international aid that goes to agricultural development – bringing it to 1980 levels – has also been watered down. The draft text now calls for increasing agriculture's share of aid without setting any target amount.

The "Millions Fed" report is really a study of the link between agricultural investment and food production, says Prabhu Pingali of the

Gates Foundation. Yet "despite the proven successes," he says surprisingly little attention is given to the role of investment in agriculture.

"When people meet in Rome," Mr. Pingali says, they may wonder "why are we talking about investment in agriculture. This book gets beyond the why to the how – to what works and doesn't work."


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