A new deal for global food policy

The disturbing images should be spurring the global community to action: riots in Haiti, protests in Egypt and violence in many other countries around the globe, sparked by the rising price of food.

Hardest hit by the crisis are the world’s poorest people. The World Bank Group estimates doubling of food prices over the last three years could potentially push 100 million people in low income countries deeper into poverty. And the problem is here to stay: the realities of demography, changing diets, energy prices and biofuels, and climate changes suggest that high food prices will be with us at least through the medium term.

Since 2005, the prices of staple foods have jumped by 80 to 83 per cent per cent. Painful as these price increases are to the American consumer, they strike an even more devastating blow to the world’s poorest people – children, as young as four or five, forced to flee the safety of their rural co-mmunities to fight for food in teeming cities; mothers deprived of nutrition for healthy babies. For these families, food comprises from half to three quarters of consumption and there is no margin for survival.

To help those who will be hit the hardest, the World Bank Group is calling for a New Deal for Global Food Policy. This New Deal should focus not only on hunger and malnutrition, access to food and its supply but also the interconnections with energy, yields, climate change, investment, the marginalisation of women and others, and economic resiliency and growth.

We should start by helping those whose needs are immediate. The UN’s Wor-ld Food Programme requi-res at least $500 million of additional food supplies to meet emergency calls. The US, the EU, Japan and other nations must act now to fill this gap or many more will suffer and starve.

Skyrocketing food prices have increased attention to the larger challenge of overcoming hunger and malnutrition, the underlying cause of the deaths of an estimated 3.5 million children under five each year. More than 20 per cent of maternal deaths are traced to malnutrition. It weakens immunities to diseases. Hunger and malnutrition are a cause, not just a result, of poverty.

A shift from traditional food aid to a broader concept of food and nutrition assistance must be part of this New Deal. In many cases, cash or vouchers, as opposed to commodity support, is appropriate and can enable the assistance to build local food markets and farm production. When commodities are needed, purchasing fr-om local farmers can stre-ngthen communities. Sch-ool lunch programmes dr-aw children to classrooms, while helping healthy kids to learn and some offer parents food, too.

The World Bank Group can help by backing emergency measures that support the poor while encouraging incentives to produce and market food as part of sustainable deve-lopment. Countries as diverse as Bhutan and Brazil have feeding programmes for vulnerable groups. Mozambique and Cambodia employ locally-selected public works programmes in exchange for food – developing roads, wells and schools. Others, such as Egypt and Ethiopia, offer cash transfers conditional on self-help steps, like sending children to school.

We will work with countries, especially in Africa and partner institutions, to seize an opportunity from the higher demand for fo-od. We can help create a ‘Green Revolution’ for sub-Saharan Africa by assisting countries to boost productivity throughout agricultural value chain and help small-holder farmers to break the cycle of poverty. We will almost double our own lending for agriculture in Africa, from $450 million to $800 million, and can help nations and farmers manage systemic risks such as drought. We can offer access to technology and science to boost yields. Through IFC, World Bank’s private sector arm, we will scale up investment and advisory support to agribusiness operations.

To be most successful, we need to integrate and mobilise a diverse range of partners including Gates Foundation, FAO, WFP and International Fund for Agricultural Development, other Multilateral Development Banks, agricultural research institutes, developing countries with great agricultural experience, such as Brazil and private sector.

A New Deal for Global Food Policy will contribute to inclusive and sustainable development. People in poor, middle income and developed countries will benefit together. Income gains from agriculture have three times the power in overcoming poverty than increases in other sectors and 75 per cent of the world’s poor are rural, with most involved in farming. Working with our partners, we can ease the burden of high food prices on the world’s most vulnerable people.

(Zoellick is World Bank president)