The first of the eight Millennium Development Goals makes an ambitious demand: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger worldwide. It is now widely accepted that progress has been made in many countries on cutting the percentage of people living with less than the rock-bottom $1.25 a day. But decreasing hunger by half is another sadder story.
Higher global food prices, rising populations, poor agricultural land farmed by powerless women without access to capital, disruptive regional conflicts and damaging cyclical weather patterns have all been blamed as malnutrition and hunger persist in communities trying to stay ahead of starvation. The failure to stem hunger and malnutrition, which is actually increasing in parts of Africa and South Asia, undermines not only Goal 1 but also other Millennium Goals related to health, particularly maternal and child mortality.
“The developing world’s progress is seriously lagging on global targets related to food and nutrition,” says the Global Monitoring Report 2012, published on April 20 by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
In response to the flagging progress on getting food to poor people, a higher priority is being placed on tackling more fundamental, systemic and often political problems — beyond the vicissitudes of weather and price spikes — that leave hundreds of millions of people without enough basic nourishment.
In the early months of this year, reports from international organizations and nongovernmental groups have been targeting long-term issues like ineffective or corrupt government programs that siphon away aid and food stocks; inefficient and wasteful food storage and transportation systems; little local agricultural training; and now an explosion of land grabs by powerful people, foreign governments and domestic as well as international corporations.
The sale, lease or blatant takeover of large tracts by outsiders in poor countries as vastly different as Cambodia and Ethiopia intensifies the pressures on agriculture by reducing available farmland. Richer countries and their companies can now in a sense buy insurance against their own potential food shortages by acquiring land in poorer, more vulnerable places. China and India, for example, are buying land in Ethiopia, where food crops are not grown primarily for local people.
Land is also being exploited to grow or mine commodities for export. A just-released report by the National Association of Professional Environmentalists/Friends of the Earth Uganda and Friends of the Earth International demonstrates this unfortunate global trend. The report, “Land, Life and Justice: How land grabbing in Uganda is affecting the environment, livelihoods and food sovereignty of communities,” surveys several affected regions of the country.
“In Uganda,” the report said, “The government, keen to attract foreign investment, has allowed foreign companies to move onto large areas of land for a range of projects, including the development of large scale oil palm plantations, carbon offset tree plantations and, following the recent discovery of oil, for drilling.” Environmental damage compounds the loss of farmland. “The tree plantations being developed to seek carbon credits are replacing native forest with monoculture plantations of nonnative species such as eucalyptus and pine,” the report found.
In March, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization disseminated “Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security” to encourage governments to grasp the importance of these issues, which are significant barriers to development. “Many tenure problems arise because of weak governance,” the UN agency said in introducing the guidelines. “Weak governance adversely affects social stability, sustainable use of the environment, investment and economic growth.”
In a recent policy brief from the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington organization, Jason Bremner wrote that one of every four people in sub-Saharan Africa does not have enough food to sustain a healthy, active life. The situation looks even worse when considering the population of the region, where fertility is the highest in the world and is projected to more than double, from 856 million now to about 2 billion by 2050.
Moreover, Bremner wrote: “Agricultural yields in sub-Saharan Africa remain lower than other developing regions. Agricultural inputs and the techniques and technologies needed to boost production are lagging far behind the rest of the developing world.”
The right to food
In the first of a new series, the International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2011 Global Food Policy Report said last year that “In 2011, agriculture moved to the forefront of the international development agenda. … Investments in the sector are rising, and contributions are coming from industrialized countries as well as emerging and developing economies, the private sector and philanthropic entities.”
Among donor nations, the United States Agency for International Development introduced a Feed the Future program in 2010 that emphasized technological assistance and innovation in agriculture, with advice on how to create markets and improve nutritional standards.
Advocates in many countries are campaigning for a right to food, promoted by a pro-bono UN monitor attached to the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In India, where more than 40 percent of children are malnourished and tons of food supplies are lost in ramshackle storage sites, the government has introduced a national food security act to try to ensure better nutrition.
India’s leading agricultural expert, M.S. Swaminathan, wrote earlier this year in The Hindu newspaper that India, soon to be the world’s most populous nation with the largest number of poor people on earth, is about to introduce “the largest social protection program against hunger in human history.” The proposed act, however, has yet to pass the fractious Indian Parliament.
This article is the third in a series assessing the status of the Millennium Development Goals.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.