Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

World Food Day: No Wiggle Room in Global Food Supplies

October 16, 2012

Today is “World Food Day”. It’s a day to increase awareness of the world’s food problem, as well as to unify around the fight against hunger and poverty.  As a leader on the Agricultural Development team at the foundation, it’s an issue about which I care deeply. To recognize the day, I gave a keynote address to McGill University’s Global Food Security Conference. My main message: the recent US drought, while serious, had a smaller effect on global food security than anticipated. Good harvests in other parts of the world and high international stock levels had muted the effect of US shortfalls on global markets. The world managed to duck this crisis, but we may not be as fortunate next time around. The world’s ability to buffer one or more future shocks is extremely limited. But there are steps we can take now to improve the situation for farmers and therefore, for the entire world.  

What do I mean?  The rising demand for food, feed and fuel is not being met. We have been through two decades of very limited productivity growth in terms of the crops the world grows that ended with the food price crisis of 2008. The “new normal” that we are observing, in terms of higher and more volatile food prices is a reflection of the tightening global food markets.  Climate change resulting in rising temperatures as well as increasing incidence of weather shocks, such as droughts or typhoons, can exacerbate the situation.

Enhancing the ability of farmers to grow more and better food, and increasing the amount of food grown, particularly in the developing world, is the only effective means of managing a market that has not seen a steady supply of food.  For low income countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, we ought to focus on staple food crops that are important to poor farmers.  Increasing local food supplies contributes to better nutrition and helps farm households grow out of poverty by selling surpluses.

Meeting the food needs of the rising urban middle class populations in the emerging economies such as India, Brazil  and South Africa, provide a new opportunity for revitalizing agricultural growth.  Supermarkets are becoming ubiquitous and displacing traditional markets as primary providers of food for urban populations. Integrating farming households into the growing food retail world would be beneficial, both in terms of increasing overall supply of fresh produce as well as a direct means of enhancing their own income and nutritional status.  

For low income as well as for emerging economies public support for agricultural research, technology development, and for infrastructure development, such as roads, transport, storage systems, and irrigation is absolutely crucial.

Agriculture has been off the political agenda for two decades, it’s finally back on center stage again after 2008. It’s time now to step up foreign aid and developing country budgets targeted towards addressing the needs of smallholder farmers and for enhancing y developing country agricultural productivity growth.

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