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Less talk, more action needed on food security

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World Food Day is Friday, and on opposite sides of the developed world, two large groups of experts have gathered to talk about the risks of food insecurity and what should be done to reduce hunger. In Rome, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is mulling how to feed the world in 2050, and in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize forum will focus on the role of food in national security.

Last year’s spike in food prices raised the political profile of food security. G8 nations and the United States have pledged money and action. I spoke with Per Pinstrup-Andersen, an agricultural economist at Cornell University and a Food Prize laureate, to get his take on what that means. Here are some excerpts. 
     
pinstrup_andersenQ. What do you think is different now in terms of the political will to address this problem? 
A. I think there is an increase in the political will. However, past initatives or past rhetoric of that kind didn’t really result in much action. I’m very concerned that we’re going to see a lot of additional rhetoric and a lot of plans being designed and discussed during the next year or so, but probably not very much action. Insofar as developing country governments are concerned, I doubt if the political will has changed at all. There is a lot of talk. But unless the developing country governments decide to prioritize the eradication or at least the amelioration of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, not much is going to happen.

The best way of doing that in the long run is to invest in rural areas, in infrastructure, in agricultural research, in primary health care. Look, we know what needs to be done, it’s not a big secret, it’s just that the governments have other priorities. The World Bank can put in a lot of money, and so can the bilaterals, but for this to have a sustainable impact, the governments of these countries have to step up to the plate. 
 
Q. What can be done to encourage that to happen? 
A. I wish I knew. The governments of most developing countries — and it’s not all of them — are ignoring the Millenium Development Goals, they’re ignoring the World Food Summit goals. Their main concern is to maintain legitimacy so they can hold on to power, and the rural poor are not threatening them. 
     
Q. In the face of that, what can donor countries do to make the best of their investment? 
A. I think all we can really do from the outside is to try to make up for the deficiencies of the national governments by bringing some money and some technical assistance to bear on these problems and to try to convince governments to work with us on this so that over a period of time the government will gradually take over these things. 
     
cQ. How do you think the new U.S. food security initiative will play into global efforts to address hunger? 
A. One of my concerns is that we once again are going to spend a lot of time and effort and money on developing plans. We’ve got so many plans developed for almost every country in the world. We now need to pick them up and put them into action.

I think (the U.S. initiative) is better than ignoring (food security), as we have tended to do in the past. Money may convince national governments to change their priorities, as long as the money keeps flowing. I think we should be prepared to stay in this kind of thing for at least 25 years, which of course is not the way things are usually done. If we are thinking in terms of a five-year time horizon for this food security initiative, it’s not going to be sustainable.