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Feeding Ourselves

The sidewalks of Bangkok. (SlapAyoda/Flickr)

The sidewalks of Bangkok. (SlapAyoda/Flickr)

Mahnaz Ispahani

Thank you very much, Mr. Desai. That was a richly informative opening to our discussion. I'm going to turn the program over to Brian Halweil who is a Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute who has written extensively on the social and ecological impacts of how we grow our food. I don't want to take any more time from Brian.

Brian Halweil

Thank you. I also don't want to take up too much time, because we have a wonderful panel ahead of us. Our food systems are incredibly complex. They're influenced by ecological interactions, microbes interacting in the topsoil, plants interacting with pests aboveground, chemicals that we put on the soil interacting with both plants and microbes. They're also influenced by social structures, men and women interacting in households, one farming culture interacting with another, different farming communities trading between themselves. Most recently, as agriculture is integrated into the global economy, there's yet another layer of complex interaction that's laid upon these and these include, as Mr. Desai mentioned, global patent laws, international trade agreements, sanctions against certain countries which influence food supplies, and a range of other interactions.

What this complexity basically means, it virtually guarantees that any attempt to modify the global food system, any attempt to eradicate poverty, to alleviate hunger, is going to have to be multifaceted. It's going to require many different approaches, so I'm excited to introduce our three panelists who, although they all work towards reducing poverty and hunger around the world, take different approaches, some legal, some economic, some educational, and some ecological.We have a slight change in the program order. Our first speaker is going to be Malcolm Bale, who joins us from the World Bank. Mr. Bale is Sector Manager for Strategy and Policy in the East Asia Regional Unit of the World Bank. Since joining the Bank in 1978, he's undertaken economic research on commodity trade, international trade policy, and has been an economic policy advisor in 20 countries. He's published articles and books on international trade and agricultural issues. He has also testified before the U.S. House and Senate on these issues. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin, and he's also a member of the editorial board for the International Journal of Agricultural Economics. Mr. Bale.

Malcolm Bale

Basically, the words that I'm going to say are very much supportive of what Mr. Desai was speaking about. I'm just going to give you a few ideas and a few numbers. I was asked to speak first on food security and my basic hypothesis is that the main issue of food security that we should be concerned about is at the household level, that food and security is basically caused by poverty, that poverty is basically found in rural areas. Therefore, if we're interested in food security issues, we should be working on rural poverty alleviation efforts. A disclosure: that is my area of expertise, so I may have a conflict of interest. So, as I mentioned, there are three levels of food security. At the global level, food security is not a particularly great issue in as much as we observe abundance of food. In a lot of countries we observe, international food prices have been falling.

At the national level, I would argue that this is an issue for a decreasing number of countries in a decreasing number of years. It's not an issue we can ignore. It's an issue we have to be constantly vigilant about, but it is not the number one food security issue. I would argue the number one food security issue is household food security. This is a major issue for the development community and, as Mr. Desai said, there are half a billion people in Asia alone who are undernourished. So let's talk for a moment about household food security. The major cause is a lack of income. People lack income because they are living in poverty. They don't have access to the resources from which to generate income. These, I'm sure, are facts that you know. Women and children are more badly affected by poverty than are men. Most of poverty is found in rural areas. In excess of 70% of poverty in Asia is in rural areas, and some will say to you, “Well, there's terrible poverty in the urban areas of the large mega-cities, we see.” That is true. Most of that comes from rural areas that have migrated to those urban areas looking for jobs. So poverty alleviation efforts, I claim, we need to look very hard at the rural areas for that.

Let's look at the number of people--I'm just going to give you a few numbers--the number of people living on less than a dollar a day. This graph is divided according to World Bank regions, so on the left we have East Asia and Pacific, which is one of our regions and then the middle right is South Asia, so those are the two that we are interested in and you can see that the number of people living on less than a dollar day is perhaps a little bit short of 1 billion people in the region which we might call Asia, South Asia and East Asia put together. Those are 1990 figures. The 1998 figures, you can see that we are getting a little bit better in East Asia, a little bit worse in South Asia. If we look at it as a share, we get very different numbers. We find as a share of the total population that sub-Saharan Africa is by far the worse. South Asia is still very bad and most have been improving over the years, over the '90s. So the challenge of persistent poverty, we find there's malnourishment, despite the fact that we observe over a long period falling commodity prices. Poverty is down from 29% globally to 24%, but that still means that we have 1.2 billion people living on less than $1 a day. Most of the poor live in rural areas, and they will do so for another generation. The rural share will not drop below 50% before 2035, and other 35 years, 34 years.

As people who know about development, you will know about the World Food Summit that was held in 1996. This graph shows you the gap between those who are nourished and those that are undernourished, and you can see as we go out towards 2015, relative to the World Food Summit that was set, the gap is getting wider. I'm afraid we're not winning. The gain, just looking at a pie chart of undernourishment--this I thought was extremely illustrative in that it shows China and India in Asia almost make up half of the undernourishment by region. So, if we are interested in making a difference in the nourishment of people, I would suggest that those two countries should command the majority of our attention. Other Asian Pacific areas make up another big quadrant, so Asia in general is really the area where we find most of the poor, undernourished, underfed people.

So, I would just throw out a few ideas now of what might be priorities for the development community to assist with food security. Firstly, we need to encourage good policy by governments. We need a stable economy; we need competitive markets that enable food security to happen. We need to promote agriculture, agricultural trade and investment and we need to do this so that we'll benefit all people, including the poor. There are some developments that possibly leave the poor out, and Mr. Desai raised a very important issue on biotechnology and property rights issues and whether this, in fact, is reaching the poor. We need to strengthen agricultural research and strengthen agricultural education and education in general. We have to put into the hands of rural people--we have to provide them the same education as we see in urban areas so that they have the option of moving away from survival on the land to other income-earning opportunities. Finally, we need to improve the food assistance safety nets in countries. Most developing countries, especially in Asia, do not have social safety nets; do not have any social welfare system. We need to put in place; we need to think about what we can put in place that will target the poor, especially targeting the vulnerable, who are the women and the children. Thank you.