12 July 2008

Three coins in the UN fountain

By Marguerite Finn


As the dust settles on the latest G8 talk-fest, I thought it would be interesting to look at some UN Agencies quietly getting on with the long-term business of defeating malnutrition. My research took me on a voyage of discovery that ended up right here in Norwich!

Last week, I described the World Food Programme (WFP) as the emergency service at the heart of the UN – which it is – but it collaborates with two other agencies in a coherent way. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) and the WFP are all based in Rome. One might call them the 'Three Coins in the Fountain' (for those who can remember that 1954 song!), 'each one seeking happiness' by working together to alleviate the scourge of hunger.

A good example of this three-fold partnership in action was their collaborative response to the Asian tsunami. The WFP moved thousands of tons of food, by land, sea and air, to the tsunami zone. The FAO helped the governments plan the rehabilitation of the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. The IFAD mobilised funds to rebuild livelihoods in coastal communities. The three agencies, while separate and independent, were complementary and effective, bringing the benefit of their combined strengths to the affected communities.

Last month, the FAO hosted a Summit meeting in Rome, where 40 heads of governments gathered to discuss the food crisis and the poor state of world farming. The outcome was an acknowledgement that misplaced subsidies and the consequent stunting of the agricultural sector in the developing world was largely to blame for the current crisis. For example, in 2006, only £2 billion was spent on agricultural development in developing countries compared to £12.5 billion spent worldwide on subsidies to farmers in the developed world. The World Bank admitted neglecting farming in Africa and forcing poor countries to "liberalise their economies prematurely" - which damaged their agricultural sectors.

Government ministers in Rome and Japan are unanimous in their calls for increased investment in agriculture as a matter of urgency. Nothing less than a "second green revolution" will suffice.

The first green revolution, however, was achieved in the 1970's when scientists and policymakers focused on increasing production at whatever cost, binding small farmers into dependence on big (Western) corporations. The result we have today is an unsustainable global agricultural system that is highly intensive and relies on the availability of cheap energy and vast amounts of water for irrigation. What was seen as the solution, thirty years ago, has become today’s problem.

The IFAD is committed to reversing the decline in agricultural productivity and the growing problem of desertification. Since IFAD was created in 1977, it has focused exclusively on rural poverty reduction. Lennart B├ąge, Head of IFAD, believes that supporting smallholders is crucial to future food security. He says, "the world's 450 million smallholder farms of two hectares or less are often efficient producers on a yield-per-hectare basis". He cites the example of Vietnam, which has risen from being a food-deficient country to the world's second-largest rice exporter, largely as a result of the development of its smallholder farming sector. The portion of Vietnamese living in absolute poverty has declined from 58 percent to 14 percent.

To realise their potential, smallholder farmers need unfettered access to technology to boost productivity and to microfinance for fertilisers, seeds and tools; they also need access to water, roads and market information - but with no strings attached this time round.

At this point, I encountered something that was a surprise to me.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an organisation most associated in the public mind with nuclear weapons inspection, works closely with the three agencies in Rome. The IAEA, whose restrictive treaty with the World Health Organisation in 1959 discourages that latter from publishing research into health problems associated with radiation, is nevertheless using nuclear technology positively to develop better varieties of food crops. IAEA worked on the development of saline-tolerant rice varieties and on projects to determine how supplementation programmes affect the breast milk of nursing mothers - this is where the link with Norwich comes in. The Institute of Food Research in Norwich works with the IAEA on nutritional issues, putting Norwich at the cutting edge of modern technology, working alongside those at the heart of the United Nations to deliver a second green revolution in agriculture and food production. If the UN oversees ethical standards necessary to protect vulnerable members of society, then there could be a win-win situation where both rural populations and private enterprise benefit.