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Feeding millions

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AT a time when attention seems focused mainly on climate change and the forthcoming world summit in Copenhagen, the issue of world hunger has not gone away. A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) World Summit on Food Security, held in Rome from November 16 to 18, aimed to give a new momentum to the fight against hunger and malnutrition, which currently affect more than 1 billion people worldwide. At the end of the meeting, the FAO’s director general, Jacques Diouf, said that the summit marked ‘an important step’ towards achieving a world free from hunger, but expressed disappointment that the official declaration adopted by the meeting contained ‘neither measurable targets nor specific deadlines which would have made it easier to monitor implementation . . .’

With the world’s population forecast to grow from 6·8 billion to 9 billion over the next 40 years, the challenges of meeting future demand for food are immense, and the difficulties are compounded by the need to mitigate the effects of climate change and the fact that the amount of land, water and other resources is limited. In such circumstances it is easy to be pessimistic, but a recent publication from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), an organisation based in Washington that aims to find ‘sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty’, takes a different approach. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the IFPRI undertook a project to identify what kinds of policies, programmes and investments in agricultural development have actually been successful in reducing hunger and poverty over the past 50 years, with a view to identifying strategies for the future. Its publication, ‘Millions fed: proven successes in agricultural development’ (available at www. ifpri.org/millionsfed), reports the results of that project and illustrates various ways in which progress has and can be made.

The IFPRI took a rigorous approach to identifying initiatives that could be considered to have been successful, assessing nearly 300 nominated case studies on the basis of importance, scale, proven impact and sustainability. Of these, 20 were selected and these form the basis of ‘Millions fed’, with the findings being presented in summary and book format, with complete technical background papers available on the website.

Taken together, the 20 case studies describe a diverse range of initiatives that have improved people’s lives at a global, regional or local/national level. Notable among these is a chapter on the global effort to eradicate rinderpest, by Peter Roeder and Karl Rich. Called ‘Conquering the cattle plague’, this describes how a disease which has been a scourge of livestock and people who depend on them for thousands of years has effectively been eradicated. This has been achieved as a result of scientists developing and perfecting vaccines, and through international collaboration and coordination aimed at monitoring the disease and eliminating it wherever it lingered. This is a remarkable achievement, on a par with the eradication of smallpox. By saving millions of livestock and contributing to increased production of animal products, rinderpest eradication has improved the food security and livelihoods of millions of people worldwide, and the case study provides an inspiring example of how veterinary science and the veterinary profession can contribute to solving problems on a global scale.

Although a diverse range of projects are described in the book, a number of factors are identified as being often critical to success. They include sustained investment in agricultural research and development, as well as in complementary areas such as irrigation, roads, education and market infrastructure; private incentives to encourage investment; and cooperation and collaboration among a variety of groups, such as public research institutes, government agencies, community-based organisations, international organisations and private companies. Community involvement needs to be supported and leadership is necessary to champion change.

The IFPRI is not the only organisation to have offered new insights into food security issues recently. In October, the Royal Society published a study examining the contribution of the biological sciences to food crop production (‘Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture’, available at http://royalsociety.org). This, too, identifies the need for a renewed and long-term commitment to agricultural research and development, as well as for a wide variety of approaches. At a time when funding for science rarely seems to stretch for more than three years and governments seem to find it difficult to think beyond the next election, it is hard to see quite where the long-term commitment will come from, but it is needed now as never before.

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