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Avoid the blame game on World Food Day

Written by Steve Wiggins

With World Food Day being marked this weekend, sensitivities to the price of food have rarely been higher. Summer saw the futures price of wheat skyrocket by almost $100 a tonne, leading observers to voice fears of another food price spike on the scale seen in 2007/08. Such a seismic shift in prices now looks unlikely; although poor harvests in Canada, Kazakhstan, Russia and the Ukraine have pushed up cereals prices, the cumulative effect is nothing like that of two summers past.  

‘United Against Hunger’ is the theme chosen by the United Nations to mark the annual focus on food markets. Such a message is important in generating attention, but away from the fanfare many still see volatility in international grain markets as their number one priority. It shouldn’t be. Curtailing speculation on grain futures is a red herring. Despite what some claim, there is little evidence that this was a major factor in the 2007/08 price spike. Supply, including stocks, had slipped behind demand so that rising prices reflected real tensions in the market, not some speculative bubble. Training our sights on speculators is to miss the real target.

That is not to say grain markets cannot be improved. They can: above all by publishing more information on stocks; and by ensuring options are available for diverting resources from livestock and industry when price spikes threaten.

The real priority on World Food Day should remain the estimated 925 million people who are undernourished; the 31% of children under five years in the developing world who are underweight and whose potential physical and mental development is undermined. These numbers are unacceptably high, leaving the world well behind the progress needed to reach Millennium Development Goal 1 on hunger by 2015.

Delivery requires a three-part agenda. One, make sure that production of cereals and other staples, grows just a little bit faster than population. Growth of less than 2% a year would suffice. With public investment in agricultural research, rural roads and policies that encourage farmers, this is not a difficult target. Two, reduce poverty: in rural areas, agricultural development is often one of the best ways to do this.  Three, complement these with improved health, child care and hygiene through primary health, clean water, and education of mothers.

This isn’t impossible. Over the last 25 years, Ghana ranks among the five top performers in the world in agricultural growth. Cocoa production has boomed, and staple foods production has risen by 80% in a generation. This has contributed to an increase in rural living standards that has seen 1 in 4 people lifted out of poverty by 2006 and almost halved child malnutrition since the end of the ’80s.  New analysis from ODI shows Ghana will soon achieve the MDG1 of halving 1990 levels of poverty and hunger by 2015.

Population growth remains a real challenge for food and agricultural production. There will very probably be another 2.2 billion people living on the planet by 2050. They will have to be fed and, whilst the production increases needed over this period are modest, these will have to be achieved using existing resources if key tropical forests and wetlands are to be conserved.

The  UK Government's chief scientist, Professor Sir John Beddington, has warned that business as usual will lead to nightmare scarcities of food, fuel and water by 2030. If we are to avoid this, then farming will need to produce more food while economising on water use,  and reduce net emissions of greenhouse gases— currently almost 30% of the global total.

The real challenge for World Food Day is to consider how agriculture can deliver on its development trinity: contribute to reducing poverty and hunger; raise production to feed a growing world population; and to do both these things while reducing net emissions and saving water.  Technically the solutions are possible, but the political will for exploring the economic and social options required is imperative.