The recent World Food Summit in Rome clearly failed to do its job. It did well to focus attention on the risk of food price shocks of the magnitude experienced in mid-2008, which led to civil unrest in over 30 countries. Yet it abjured its responsibility to the vision of a world free from chronic hunger and malnutrition, especially child malnutrition. Behind-the-scenes wrangling over the wording of the summit declaration ensured that no tangible commitments were made by rich countries to put the first Millennium Development Goal, MDG 1 — to halve global hunger and poverty by 2015 and eliminate it altogether by 2025 — on high priority. Instead, the 2025 deadline was jettisoned. With one child dying of hunger and malnutrition every six seconds and over 20 million children at risk, such negligence may cost all nations, and perhaps even the world order as it stands, dearly. The summit also chose to put price shocks ahead of a sustainable vision for agriculture through investments in technology and projects for developing countries. The FAO failed to convince G8 countries to increase the three-year, $20 billion investment in agriculture they promised at L’Aquila in July. Despite the FAO’s efforts, the G8 declined to raise that investment to $44 billion annually — though even that would have meant only a return to 1980 levels as a percentage of official aid spent on this sector. Among the G8 leaders, only Silvio Berlusconi bothered to attend the Rome summit, something an Italian Prime Minister could hardly avoid doing.
Yet the signs that the world has run out of time to address food shortage and inaccessibility could not be more ominous. Private companies supplying ‘breakfast cereals’ have, out of desperation to avoid 2008-type price spirals, started investing in agriculture in poorer countries. This has raised, for example in the case of South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics investing in Madagascar, the spectre of land grabs and political conflicts. In developing countries such as India, the supply of rice has dwindled owing to one of the worst monsoons in 30 years, prompting cuts in import duty and expectations of a global price surge. As scientist M.S. Swaminathan has pointed out, unless agriculture is viewed not as a food-producing machine, but as the backbone of the livelihood of the majority of the people, MDG 1 is likely to turn into a pipe dream. Only pro-poor policy interventions on an unprecedented scale integrated with increased investments in agricultural technology and projects can deliver the world from endemic hunger. Meeting at a time when the economic scenario is still grim, the summit has failed to instil confidence that this is likely to happen.