Food for all.
The recent global food crisis is a warning of what can happen when the food system is ignored by policymakers. National governments must now make the necessary investments in public goods for agricultural development, such as rural infrastructure, market development, agricultural research, and appropriate technology. These public goods are essential for farmers and other private-sector agents to do what it takes to generate economic growth and reduce poverty and hunger within and outside the rural areas. Farmers and traders in areas without such public goods cannot expand production, increase productivity and incomes, reduce unit costs of production and marketing, and contribute to the eradication of hunger. When food prices increased during 2007 and the first half of 2008, farmers responded by increasing production. But virtually all the increase came from countries and regions with good infrastructure and access to modern technology. A large share of the world's poor farmers could not respond. In fact, the majority of African farmers cannot even produce enough to feed their own families. They are net buyers of food and as such were negatively affected by the food price increase.
This has to change if hunger is to be abolished. The knowledge is available to do so. What is missing is the political will among most, but not all, national governments in both developing and developed countries. Large food price decreases from the mid-1970s to 2000 created a false complacency among policymakers and low incomes among farmers in developing countries. Both caused very low private and public investments in agriculture and rural public goods. The recent global food crisis changed all that; or did it? What we have seen is a great deal of conference activity, talk, and hand-wringing but very little action, except irresponsible trade policies and short-term policy interventions to protect urban consumers, who may be a threat to existing governments (remember food riots). The majority of the world's poor, who reside in rural areas, are still being ignored, and in some cases exploited, and little investment is being made to produce more food, improve productivity, and reduce unit costs on small farms.
At each of several high-level international conferences dedicated to the food and hunger situation, promises were made for large amounts of money to be made available for long-term solutions. Most recently, the G8 meeting in Italy promised up to $20 billion for that purpose. "Up to" are key words. So far, only very small amounts of the money promised at the earlier conferences have in fact come forth, and much of what did materialize was merely transferred from other development activities instead of being additional funds. Will the $20 billion materialize and will governments in developing countries now begin to prioritize agricultural and rural development? If the answer to the second question is no, the global food crisis of 2007-2008 is going to look like child's play compared to what is to come as climate change increases production fluctuations and makes large previously productive areas unproductive because of drought or floods, and as countries lose their trust in the international food market and pursue self-serving policies at the expense of neighboring countries, something that has already begun. The planet is perfectly capable of producing the food needed in the foreseeable future and eradicating hunger without damaging natural resources, but only with enlightened policies. The time to act is now.
RELATED ARTICLE: Mark Sloan
A photographer, author, curator, and arts administrator, Mark Sloan is the director and senior curator of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, South Carolina. In 2003, Sloan photographed the behind-the-scenes collections of Harvard's Natural History Museum. Enlisting the help of curators and department heads, he identified rare scientific specimens with fascinating histories. The resulting photographs with a text by Nancy Pick were published in the book, The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures of the Harvard Museum of Natural History (Harper, 2004). A selection of these images is on display at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., through January 7, 2010.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History, which includes some 21 million specimens in a five-story high red-brick Victorian building, makes a sample of its collection available to the public. Sloan gives us a glimpse of this slice of the world distilled.
Sloan's photographs, including his well-known documentation of circus and sideshow history, have been exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris, the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston Salem, North Carolina, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, and the High Museum in Atlanta.
Images courtesy of the artist. Copyright 2004 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
H. E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy
Ithaca, New York