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Remarks by World Bank Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships, Mari Pangestu, at the Food Security Roundtable: Strengthening Food Security in 2020 and Beyond

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Esteemed Ministers, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to our Annual Meetings Food Security Roundtable.

We meet today to discuss an issue that sits at the heart of our development agenda: food security.

We won’t meet our twin goals of ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity without addressing food security.

When families fall further into poverty, cutting back on calories and nutrition, economies suffer, and human capital is compromised together with progress for the next generation.

When people are hungry, forests tend to burn, rolling back environmental gains.

And governments lose legitimacy in the eyes of the people, increasing the risk and severity of fragility, conflict and violence.

Food security is much more than an agricultural issue. It deserves action across government, from trade and competitiveness, to social protection, nutrition and environmental action. This is why I am so pleased to see the participation of so many Ministers at today’s roundtable.

I’d like to make three short points.

The first is that leadership matters. In the early days of the pandemic, consumers and governments moved quickly to secure basic needs, sometimes hoarding food and creating fears that we would see a repeat of the export restrictions that accentuated food price increases in the past.

Thankfully, we learned from the past and moved away, in large part, from this protectionist scenario. The leadership of the G20 and other regional cooperation bodies was decisive. Governments made a concerted effort to keep food moving between countries. As a result, global trade in agricultural commodities has remained relatively stable and strong.

My second point is that short and longer-term food security challenges are interconnected. Unless we invest in stronger, healthier and more resilient food systems, we’ll keep facing repeated and increasingly costly crises.

We cannot afford to neglect agriculture. Globally, two thirds of the working poor work in agriculture.

Rapid phone surveys we’ve been carrying out since the beginning of the pandemic, show that rural populations are particularly vulnerable to reduced incomes and have fewer coping mechanisms than urban populations.

We need policies and programs that boost food producers’ incomes, connect them to markets and encourage them to produce higher-value and more diversified foods. Society at large will be stronger as a result, including in situations of fragility, conflict and violence where agribusiness jobs and rural programs can improve social cohesion.

The same is true of nutrition. We can’t afford to focus solely on empty calories and keep producing ever more ultra-processed foods. Producing calories without nutrition is counter- productive, resulting in the worsening obesity epidemic we see today –even in low-income countries. And as new research by our teams has shown, obesity predisposes individuals to more severe impacts of COVID-19, increasing the risk of death by nearly 50%.

Healthy diets are still too expensive for more than 3 billion people in the world. Our response to the current crisis must support better health and human capital development in the long run.

Today’s food systems are also a significant source of greenhouse gases. Even as we worry about COVID-19, climate impacts are being felt in the form of locust outbreaks, drought, and flooding.

Let’s support climate-smart agriculture so that food systems are less carbon-intensive and more climate-resilient.

Let’s do everything we can to invest in a better future –where food systems are a cornerstone of healthy economies, healthy people and a healthy planet.

This brings me to my third point, which is really a question: What more can we do to respond to rising food insecurity and build more resilient food systems?

At the World Bank, we are helping countries access financing and policy instruments.

We’ve committed many millions of dollars in social protection programs that extend cash transfers and work programs so that people can still afford to eat.

We’ve restructured our agricultural portfolio, unlocked emergency financing, and delivered new projects to help farmers cope with the crisis and keep food production strong.

Through the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a partnership hosted by the World Bank, we’ve focused on increasing rural incomes by raising agricultural productivity, creating jobs and improving access to markets, and allocated over $55 million of additional grant funding to reduce the impacts of the pandemic.

One of the Bank’s new tools for helping countries take earlier action is the $500 million Early Response Financing (ERF) available through the IDA19 Crisis Response Window. The ERF can mobilize up to $50 million per country during the early stages of an emerging crisis, making use of food security data and forecasts to identify eligible events. Several countries facing emerging food security crises are already considering applying for these funds.

This is an impressive suite of responses. And yet it’s only a drop in the ocean comparing to the need. Emergency financing is already being overstretched. We need to think outside the box or risk running from one costly crisis to the next.

The World Bank proposes to help countries maximize the impact of their spending and transform their food systems to increase food security and reach their 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

This is the aim of our new umbrella Trust Fund, Food Systems 2030. By modernizing the policies and practices that govern agriculture and food, we could steer trillions of dollars in private sector investment toward better development outcomes.

Ministers, I look forward to hearing what you see as priorities for support and policy change at this challenging time.