Global Food Policy Report Launch inspires new perspectives, fresh ideas, and calls to action

March 14, 2013
by Marcia MacNeil

“Don’t just ‘walk the talk’ — run, or even fly, the talk!” IFPRI Director General Shenggen Fan made this call to action at a policy seminar yesterday to mark the release IFPRI’s second annual Global Food Policy Report.

The event brought a full house to IFPRI’s DC office to hear perspectives on food policy developments, trends, and needed actions— not only from IFPRI but also from NGO and research partners, including the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research ServiceONE, and the World Resources Institute.

According to Fan, 2012 was marked by a number of important commitments to sustainable food security from global institutions such as the World Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, but many of these global commitments have not been backed up with actions. “If we continue with business as usual,” he said, “we will be far away from the MDG goal [of halving the population of hungry and poor by 2015].”

What are the steps to “walking the talk?” They include increasing research and development in agricultural productivity, providing better genetic inputs in grain and food production, creating an enabling environment for farmers to adopt new technology, and finding the links between agriculture, nutrition, and health, and between food, energy, and land. Fan also mentioned the need for accountability, incentives for private-sector and civil-society involvement, a better evidence base to lower the gender gap in agriculture, and finding ways to attract youth to agriculture. But the need to fulfill commitments was his strongest message. “In 2012, the poor and hungry must be part of the post-2015 development agenda,” Fan concluded.

Mary Bohman, administrator of the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, brought a new perspective, particularly on the need for research for agricultural productivity. “Productivity is not ‘manna from heaven’ – it needs to be the result of deliberate policy choices,” she said. These policy choices and targeted investments depend on quality evidence from the ground—which, she said, is lacking. She emphasized that research and innovation can not only improve agricultural growth but make the sector more attractive to youth and encourage farmers to engage as entrepreneurs to create “lively rural communities.”

New ideas from Michael Elliott, president and CEO of ONE, included the need to address “energy poverty” – the lack of lights, power, and “life after dark” for the more than 1 billion people worldwide who lack regular access to electricity, a problem that has significant implications on productivity and health. Elliot emphasized the importance of private sector engagement to create new markets and connect farmers with urban centers, and the potential of agriculture as a source of modern employment. “We shouldn’t be romantic about subsistence agriculture,” he reminded the audience. He ended with a plea for accountability to measure commitments made by both donor countries and developing countries. “Accountability is the key to…take this sensible, straightforward, and hopeful policy agenda and drive it forward.”

Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, brought an optimistic note to the discussion. Acknowledging that “there are worries,” he nevertheless sees progress. “TFP [total factor productivity] is increasing, and the idea that we’re in a (food security) crisis is not there,” he explained. “We’ve come a long way.” However, one area of real concern for Steer is climate change. Noting that earlier estimates of a two degree increase in global temperature have been largely scrapped, he said, “even the World Bank is announcing that it’s a four degree world.” According to Steer, this has huge implications for resources. “When you get to 5 percent, you’re in pretty serious trouble,” he warned, referring to low availability of water especially for farmers who depend on rain for irrigation. “We need to keep this climate-change agenda higher on our agenda, he said.

New ideas also came from participants in the room, including reducing the gap between research and smallholders through new technologies, improving the health and productivity of livestock to meet the expected surge in demand, and counting the environmental and resource costs in our estimation of agricultural productivity.

At the close of the seminar, we asked a handful of attendees what key actions the international development community should take to reduce hunger.