Helping the world's poorest people get enough to eat

from Japan International Cooperation Agency
Published on 12 Mar 2009 View Original
Near the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka thousands of people rioted last year, sm ashing cars and buses and vandalizing factories. In a string of countries throughout Africa, in Central Asia and Latin America there were similar disturbances and unrest.

Even in the United States, one of the country's most popular retail outlets imposed a temporary limit on amounts or rice customers could buy. In North Korea the situation was so dire that one government official predicted "Life is more than difficult. It seems that everyone is going to die."

The 2008 riots, complaints and shortages centered on a single product: food. In the last few years a 'perfect storm' has hit the global food system, its fallout affecting virtually all of the world's 6.6 billion population in varying degrees.

Inevitably the hardest hit have been the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Even before the crisis exploded, nearly one billion people did not have enough to eat according to the United Nations and now experts such as Professor Jun Nishikawa of Japan's Waseda University project an additional 100 million persons in developing countries are in danger of falling into poverty and malnourishment.

In one area alone, on the Horn of Africa, an estimated 15.7 million people need food assistance and UNICEF reported that 143 million children under the age of 5 in the developing world are underweight.

A Festering Problem

The situation had been festering for several years, but a series of seemingly unrelated developments turned a serious problem into a potential catastrophe. Unseasonable droughts in such traditional grain producing areas as Australia slashed harvests. Vital acreage was diverted to the production of biofuels, further reducing food production.

Oil prices soared, increasing the costs of fertilizers, transport and industrial agriculture. Changing eating habits in such 'emerging' nations as China and India with an increased emphasis on expensive meat products added to the pressure on traditional food chains as did the effects of global climate change, falling global food stockpiles, reduced acreage under cultivation, financial speculation and distorted agricultural subsidies in rich countries.

Overall, between 2006 and 2008 the average world price for rice rose by 217%, wheat by 136%, maize by 125% and soybeans by 107% according to U.N. statistics. Many of those prices have fallen back from the 2008 levels but the food crisis remains real (see accompanying food conference story).

"What is needed now more than ever is development assistance that promotes sustainable agriculture and higher productivity to provide developing countries with both income opportunities and an adequate food supply," according to Waseda University's Prof. Nishikawa.

At an African economic summit meeting in Yokohama in May 2008 (TICAD IV) Japan pledged approximately $US100 million in emergency food aid for the continent and JICA said it would support a 'green revolution' to enable the continent to double its rice production in 10 years..

At a subsequent G8 meeting in Hokkaido participants emphasized the need for higher productivity, the compatibility of biofuel and food security policies and a global partnership to abolish export restrictions. A World Food Summit in Rome announced an emergency Plan of Action including the need to expand agricultural productivity.

Achieving Food Goals

Since its launch in 1974, food production has been an integral part of JICA's overall development strategy. Today, one of its guiding principles is 'human security' - a concept which emphasizes that aid must be shaped to ensure local communities achieve 'security' in such basic services as health, education - and enough food to eat each day. The agency is also committed to achieving the 2015 U.N. Millennium Goals which includes ensuring stable food supplies.

Across the globe JICA is involved in projects throughout the entire food chain - from helping to promote the growth of more and better crops to ensuring their successful harvest and sale to rural and city populations alike.

Such a food cycle might typically begin on the slopes of Africa's most majestic mountain, Kilimanjaro. Beginning as early as the 1970s, Japan provided soft loans to help farmers in Tanzania's Lower Moshi district build new irrigation systems and grant aid assisted them in buying equipment and opening up additional acreage for cultivation. New rice varieties and cultivation techniques were introduced.

Today, these farms produce around 6 tons of rice per hectare, triple the national average. The lessons learned here are being applied continent-wide and as far away as Timor-Leste. In many cases, participating farmers for the first time have often been able to both lift their families out of a simple subsistence lifestyle and also to send their children to school.

Only a First Step

Producing better crop yields is only a first step, however, in developing a more efficient food chain.

Because of the lack of adequate storage facilities, lack of transportation, bureaucratic bottlenecks and other problems, anywhere between 30-50% of crops in some developing countries are lost after harvest. A variety of projects is trying to eliminate that waste.

At one rice training center in Egypt built with grant aid, technicians teach local and overseas farmers the latest milling, drying and storing techniques. Across the world in Myanmar JICA recently built a $4,000 low-cost drying facility fired by rice husks in the village of Legaing in one of the country's poorest regions. The facility produces better quality and higher priced rice and farmers said they were already enjoying at least 7% extra profits annually. With better technologies, village mill owners said they were able to reduce their running costs by 50%.

Fruit is bountiful locally in Legaing, but because of the hot summers and lack of refrigeration facilities, much of it simply rots. In a move to diversify farming activities and exploit a local resource, villagers are now being trained in fruit preservation and have begun selling their produce for profit - the first time many of them have access to a cash economy.

Diversification is also key in Morocco where the country faces the prospect of diminishing catches from its important fishing industry. To try to compensate, JICA experts have been teaching enhanced processing techniques and improved hygiene and quality controls to fishermen.

In the Moroccan town of Oualidia, famous for its oysters and one of the finest natural lagoons in North Africa, a Japanese volunteer has been helping locals turn previously discarded and worthless oyster shells into souvenirs which are sold to the tens of thousands of visitors who arrive each year.

New Roads Needed

From Nepal to Bangladesh to Africa, a major bottleneck to an efficient food system is the lack of roads and inefficient and often corrupt bureaucracies. Donald Kaberuka, the president of the African Development Bank, said recently transportation costs in parts of Africa were 2 1/2 times those in Asia. Because of complicated frontier controls and administrative problems it could also take twice as long for produce to reach market than in other parts of the world.

JICA is involved in projects both to improve basic infrastructure in Africa and Asia and also to streamline frontier procedures and help train not only farmers and agricultural experts but also border officials, administrators and other experts.

In the Middle East the agency is involved in a particularly ambitious project, using food not only to help local communities but also to encourage the peace process in one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Under the Concept for Creating the Corridor for Peace and Prosperity, the agency since 2007 has been working on three regional agricultural and water schemes including two feasibility studies to establish an agro-industrial park in the Jordan valley. If successful it could enhance not only agricultural production and exports but also forge closer economic and political ties between Israel, Jordan and Palestine.

Encouraging though that move is, and though food prices in late 2008 had stabilized somewhat, feeding the world's population adequately will remain a major problem for years to come.

In the Middle East rapidly diminishing water resources for both domestic use and food production could spark another political flashpoint sometime in the future. The humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan's Darfur region was sparked partially by a clash over scarce natural resources and shows no sign of ending.

Ironically, though there is probably enough food grown to feed the entire global population glaring resource and distribution discrepancies between rich and poor nations mean nearly one billion people go to bed each night hungry.

Because of those and other problems, the world's leading food agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), warned in November 2008 against a "false sense of security" adding "Riots and instability could again capture the headlines" in the near future.