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More agricultural research funding and a farmer-centred approach to boosting food production are needed to prevent future food emergencies.

One of the unfortunate side effects of the global economic crisis is that it has deflected attention from the food crisis that was grabbing headlines a year ago. Rapidly escalating food prices — spurred on by the price of oil and commodity speculation among other factors — have a disproportionate impact on the world's poor.

Now oil prices have fallen and the speculation frenzy has cooled off, food prices have also fallen by up to 50 per cent. But this does not mean the problem has gone away. For although the price of food has fallen, so too has the poor's ability to pay for it as a result of their reduced income. The World Food Programme estimates it will need 20 per cent more funding this year — on top of last year's record US$6 billion budget — to feed the world's poorest.

And even if last year's price increases have stopped, other drivers of food shortages — such as rapid population growth and climate change — remain as strong as ever.

A political issue

This is the background against which agricultural ministers of the G8 group of leading industrial nations will meet for the first time in Italy this weekend.

With political attention understandably focused on alleviating the immediate fall-outs from the economic crisis, the G8 ministers may be tempted to look to short-term measures — such as topping up the food programme — to ease the pain.

But that would be a mistake. Agricultural experts widely agree that the drop in food prices is only a temporary respite. Long-term solutions are urgently required to ensure that last year's food emergency does not become a permanent feature.

The social disruption such emergencies cause can be even more politically destabilising than those triggered by financial and economic problems — last year's price spike in wheat and rice, for example, led to riots in 30 countries.

Funding research

Two factors are essential for any long-term solution. First, there needs to be a significant increase in funding for agricultural research and development to boost agricultural productivity.

Many parts of the developing world are suffering from declines in agricultural research funding during the 1980s and 1990s when development agencies focused on structural adjustment policies and food aid.

A survey of 27 African countries by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, United States, found that about half experienced a fall in agricultural research and development spending during the 1990s — mainly because a large number of World Bank projects came to an end (see Investing in Sub-Saharan African Agricultural Research: Recent Trends [231kB]).

Recently there has been a welcome reversal of this trend. For example, donor government funding has increased for the research centres making up the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, while private foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have also entered the scene.

But more effort is needed. IFPRI's director, Joachim von Braun, recently called for international agricultural research funding to double over the next five years, arguing that such a move could lift more than 250 million people out of poverty by 2020 (see Agricultural R&D key to preventing food crises).

Supporting farmers

Equally important are steps to put research into practice. In particular, this means improving the innovative capacity of farmers in developing countries.

These people are best placed to meet local demand for food, reducing the need for expensive — and often less nutritious — imports. They can also plough any economic surpluses they make back into the community.

But to be effective, farmers need protecting from the high market price of production inputs. A fertiliser subsidy scheme in Malawi, partly funded by the UK Department for International Development, has surprised critics by its success (see A record maize harvest in Malawi).

Farmers also need access to new technology and protection from predatory pricing by companies patenting key agricultural inputs such as new crop varieties (see GM crops and the Gene Giants: Bad news for farmers).

The agenda facing the G8 agricultural ministers this weekend is just as broad and complex as that which faced the G20 meeting on the financial crisis last month. And its outcome is just as important.

But without a pledge to increase spending on agricultural research and support for farmers to put this research into practice in developing countries, any 'solution' to the food crisis will be little more than a temporary sticking plaster.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net