WASHINGTON -- The world community can drastically reduce child malnutrition over the next five decades if developed and developing countries increase support for rural development in poor countries, spend more money on research, and reduce barriers in developed countries to agricultural exports from the South, according to two recent reviews.
In its latest appeal for wealthy countries to slash their farm subsidies, the World Bank said that global trade reform could earn developing countries as much as US$349 billion a year.
That is roughly seven times what the same countries provide to poor nations in annual foreign aid, according to the Bank, which says that the subsidies are making it impossible for food produced in developing countries to compete on world markets, even though their production costs are far less.
Like the story of Robin Hood in reverse, (these subsidies) rob from the poorest of the poor and give to the rich in the richest countries, with the lion's share of the gains captured by the largest farmers.
Ian Goldin, the World Bank's vice president for external and UN affairs
At the same time, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) released a new study asserting that if trade reform can be implemented along with other policies designed to improve agricultural productivity in poor countries, the percentage of the world's children who are malnourished could drop from the current 31 percent worldwide to 11 percent by the year 2050.
But if developed and developing countries fail to take the appropriate steps, child malnutrition, which currently affects 166 million children worldwide, would actually increase to the year 2015 before declining slightly over time. Under this more pessimistic scenario, however, child malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, the world's poorest region, would actually rise over the 50 years.
"We have come to a major crossroads for the world food situation," according to the IPFRI study, which will be presented Wednesday in Nairobi at the annual meeting of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a network of two dozen public research centers around the world and the governments and foundations that support them.
"Fifty years from now, one child in four could be suffering from chronic hunger, or it could drop to one child in ten," said Joachim von Braun, director general of IFPRI, which is part of the CGIAR network. "The outcome depends on decisions made now and in the next few years."
Prospects for global food production have become a growing concern over the past several year--in part due to serious droughts, particularly in southern and eastern Africa, that have made millions of people dependent on foreign food aid and following the recent collapse of global trade negotiations--precisely because wealthy countries rejected demands from developing nations that they cut production and export subsidies and open their markets wider to food exports from the South.
Concern is also growing because of the anticipated impact of global warming which, according to many scientists, may be at least in part responsible for the recent droughts and other unusual weather patterns that have devastated certain staple crops, in affected areas of Africa in particular.
In the last two weeks, researchers in South Africa and Kenya warned that their regions may be experiencing yet another year of serious drought. In South Africa itself, a major food exporter to the rest of southern Africa, meteorologists are comparing current conditions to the 1991-92 drought in which 70 percent of crops failed and half of the population in affected areas were at risk of malnutrition and even starvation.
Similarly, meteorologists in Kenya and the rest of East Africa are worried that the lack of rain in recent weeks may portend a new drought that will require massive imports of food aid from foreign donors.
Three months ago, the Heads of State Summit of the African Union in Maputo, Mozambique, agreed to devote ten percent of their public expenditures to agriculture, in order both to increase production and prepare for these kinds of emergencies. In the 1990s, by contrast, African governments devoted only five percent of the budgets to agriculture.
"It is extremely encouraging that African policymakers at the highest level are expressing a commitment to reverse the downward spiral in sub-Saharan Africa, where per capita food production has declined over the past 30 years and child malnutrition is expected to increase," said IFPRI's von Braun.
But that alone will not be enough to ensure major progress in reducing malnutrition, according to both IFPRI and the World Bank.
Global trade reform that ensures a more-level playing field for African farmers, in particular, is essential to reduce poverty, according to the Bank, which is calling on developed countries to take the lead in resuming trade negotiations that collapsed last month at the Cancun ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization.
In addition to slashing production and export subsidies, the Bank called on wealthy countries to open their markets to temperate crops that can be grown in Africa, enabling poor countries to diversify their exports.
It noted that African cotton farmers, among the lowest-cost cotton producers in the world, are falling ever more deeply into poverty due to falling prices caused largely by agricultural subsidies, with U.S. cotton farmers receiving about $3.7 billion per year in government handouts, and those in the European Union (EU) another $0.7 billion.
"Like the story of Robin Hood in reverse, (these subsidies) rob from the poorest of the poor and give to the rich in the richest countries, with the lion's share of the gains captured by the largest farmers," noted Ian Goldin, the Bank's vice president for external and UN affairs, who is attending the CGIAR meeting in Nairobi.
IFPRI also identifies significant trade reform as a key element in increasing food production and reducing poverty and malnutrition in poor countries.
Other policy actions to reduce malnutrition, according to its study, include increased spending on agricultural and rural development by both developed and industrialized countries; expanded investment in agricultural research, in part to develop new, more drought- and pest-resistant crops, particularly for Africa; higher levels of assistance and investment in education, social services, and health; and improved efficiency in irrigation.
If such policies are followed, Latin America, the Middle East, and China could virtually eliminate child malnutrition by 2030, according to IFPRI.
But failure to implement such policies could leave from 135-140 million children malnourished by 2025. Policy failures, IFPRI said, would mean static investment levels, no progress on reducing developed-country subsidies, and more protectionism. Similarly, failure to improve irrigation efficiency, worsening pest problems, and a failure to adapt to global warming would also result in serious setbacks in containing and reducing child malnutrition.
© 2003 OneWorld.net