There is no doubt that the financial crisis roiling Europe has unsettled world markets, scrambled politics, shaken re-election prospects in several countries and darkened many 401-k prospects. But as the drama stretches on and on, another mighty impact is emerging: it is derailing the momentum to fight hunger and poverty through agricultural development.
The Euro crisis certainly overshadowed the G8 meeting in May. President Obama announced the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition before the leaders began their deliberations. But when the deliberating began, it was consumed by the politics and economics of the Eurozone. Earlier this week, the G20, meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, was also preoccupied by the financial crisis. The G20 was supposed to be the setting to really move the needle on development challenges. While some of the G20 countries did support a new initiative to drive private sector investment into more innovative agricultural solutions, the G20 didn’t do much to put into action the Action Plan on Agriculture it had ballyhooed at its previous meeting in Cannes. As a number of advocacy groups noted, the focus was on more words rather than new action.
The lack of concrete action prompted the ONE campaign to note that, “Political courage seems to be in short supply…The G20 has consistently promised a lot, but delivered very little. If it’s not careful the G20 will rapidly become irrelevant to the most pressing issues facing the world today….Leaders must provide substance to their rhetoric by ensuring that their stated desire to address global poverty is backed up by concrete action in the months ahead.”
Courage is an important word. Before the G20 began, I exhorted the leaders to adopt the courage of the smallholder farmers who, they claim, are at the center of their Action Plans. Many smallholder farmers across the developing world are taking the leap of faith to try new technologies and new methods – when made available to them – to boost their harvests, improve their nutrition and end their hunger seasons. It is incumbent on the rich world governments to make this leap with them, for the smallholder farmers are indispensable in meeting the common challenge facing us all: nearly doubling global food production by 2050. As Oxfam commented on the eve of this week’s Rio-Plus-20 meeting: “With the right support and techniques these small farmers can help feed our growing population without doing further damage to the environment.”
The smallholder farmers are also to be considered in that ultimate of domestic legislation, the Farm Bill, now making its volatile way through Congress. And courage is needed here, too, as reforms to subsidies and international food aid programs are considered.
The subsidies, which largely flow to larger agribusiness concerns, have hurt smaller, poorer farmers here in the United States and abroad. They have created an uneven plowing field between those that get subsidies and those that don’t, and they have ratcheted up the tensions in international trade.
The Senate’s version of the Farm Bill makes some progress on adjusting the subsidy programs, but more overhaul is necessary. The same is true on the international food aid front. The 2008 Farm Bill created a pilot program to study the effectiveness of purchasing food aid in the countries and regions plagued by hunger (since surplus and shortage, feast and famine often exist side-by-side in many hunger crises) rather than shipping U.S. grown food at much greater expense and time. This so-called local purchase not only saves money since more than half of the cost of U.S. food aid is consumed by the shipping cost, but it also benefits the local farmers by introducing another element of demand for their crops. The Senate version, Oxfam notes, turns the pilot into a full program, funded at $40 million a year.
Cue the applause sign. But celebrate only briefly, for that is a very modest sum. A good dose of courage would triple or quadruple that amount.