Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Agricultural Innovations for Global Food Security

by Isobel Coleman
September 23, 2011

A worker displays a handful of rice at a market in Hefei, Anhui province (Jianan Yu/Courtesy Reuters).

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) wrapped up its star-studded annual meeting yesterday. As a forum to connect corporations interested in social investments, NGOs, and government policy makers working on innovative development solutions, there are few conferences to rival CGI. It attracts numerous heads of state visiting New York for the UN General Assembly meetings (Barack Obama addressed the gathering for the third year in a row); CEOs and social entrepreneurs also attend in droves. This year’s session focused on three themes: creating jobs in the 21st century, promoting sustainable consumption, and scaling up what works to empower women and girls.

In the sustainable consumption track, one session I found particularly interesting was a panel on “Securing Global Nutrition.” USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah started the discussion by acknowledging that the development community, including USAID, had made a mistake by neglecting investments in agriculture in recent years. While rates of malnourishment have dropped in many countries, high levels still persist, especially in parts of Africa and South Asia. Some 3.5 million children die from under-nutrition every year. Fast-growing populations and rising consumption will result in growing food scarcity if agricultural productivity does not rise commensurately. Shah, however, noted that the famine again stalking the Horn of Africa is largely an issue of governance. Yes, drought has compounded the problems, but drought-affected countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, with better governance, are not facing famine like Somalia. (Indeed, Amartya Sen won the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics for demonstrating that famines occur not from lack of food, but from the unequal and inefficient distribution of food.)

Shah called upon the G-20 governments that have made commitments to Feed the Future (a multibillion dollar, multiyear initiative launched in 2009 to achieve sustainable global food security) to fulfill their obligations. He also spoke passionately, and compellingly, about the need to experiment more with genetically modified foods to feed the world’s growing population. He called it a “tragedy” that we are so reluctant to innovate in agriculture. Taking a different track, panelist Yolanda Kakabadse, the president of WWF International, urged countries to address issues of food waste. Kakabadse noted that 43 percent of packaged food around the world is thrown away, often needlessly because of overly stringent “sell-by” dates that we all follow mindlessly. She argued that these sell-by dates are designed for the very worst circumstances—leaving the food item out in the sun in the desert, for example, instead of refrigerated as happens in most developed countries.

One solution to malnutrition that the panelists agreed on was improving micronutrients in food. Supplementing flour, for example, with iron can address serious anemia issues in women and children. (The United States has been fortifying flour with iron since the 1930s; China fortifies soy sauce with iron, with equally impressive results.) Vinita Bali, managing director of Britannia Industries, emphasized the high rates of malnutrition among children in her home country of India, despite rising levels of prosperity. (More than 40 percent of Indian children under the age of three are malnourished; nearly 40 percent are stunted.) Bali also stressed that malnutrition is an intergenerational problem: malnourished girls grow up to be malnourished mothers who deliver malnourished babies, who then repeat the cycle.

Improving agricultural productivity and adopting innovative solutions to malnourishment will only become more urgent as the world’s population passes the seven billion mark this fall, and continues to climb to eight billion in the coming years (I blogged about the UN’s latest demographic projections in May). Genetically modified food, micronutrients, and waste reduction need to be part of the solution.

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