ROME – Sometimes something happens that can have a fundamental impact on mankind, but passes largely unnoticed at the time. Such an event occurred in December in Rome. The Council of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization decided that the FAO’s goal should no longer be merely to reduce hunger, but to eradicate hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition. The next step will be to confirm this change in June 2013 at the FAO Conference, in which all FAO member countries participate.
To many, this small change of wording must seem trivial. Critics will also say that adopting such a goal without setting a target date for achieving it is largely meaningless. Others may claim that even the idea of eradicating hunger is nonsense, because we lack the means to do it.
For the last 12 years, the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015 has been the driving force for hunger reduction. The proportion of hungry people in developing countries has declined significantly – from 23.2% in 1990-92 to 14.9% today. However, this decrease owes more to a rise in the world’s population than it does to the slight reduction in the actual number of hungry people (from about 980 million to 852 million today).
A “halving” goal has only slight political appeal, as it implicitly condemns the excluded half to a life on the fringes of society, exposed to illness and premature death. Brazil’s Zero Hunger strategy, by contrast, has shown that adopting the absolute goal of hunger eradication provides a powerful means of galvanizing government departments into large-scale coordinated action, and of mobilizing society in a truly national effort to end one of the greatest injustices of our time.
To be sure, it will be increasingly difficult – though far from impossible – to meet the world’s growing demand for food, and to do this in sustainable ways. Additional food must be produced using technologies that do not damage the natural resources that future generations will need in order to feed themselves; that do not fuel climate change, which weighs heavily on farmers; and that do not accelerate the disintegration of the delicate fabric of rural society.
But the challenge may not be as daunting as it seems. The rate of population growth will be much slower than over the past 50 years, and there is much room for reducing the vast quantities of food that are now wasted. Moreover, as people’s incomes rise, they might more easily be persuaded to adopt healthier and more environmentally friendly diets than those taken up in the developed world. The double burden of malnutrition – with hunger existing alongside obesity, diabetes, and other diseases of overconsumption – clearly shows the increasing importance of global dietary rebalancing.
There is nothing really new about a commitment to hunger eradication. Indeed, the FAO was created in 1945 to bring about a world in which there would be “freedom from want,” which, in the words of its founders, “means the conquest of hunger and the attainment of the ordinary needs of a decent, self-respecting life.”
Because of the widespread fear in the postwar years of emerging global food shortages, the FAO, and the international community as a whole, focused mainly on food production – a focus that remained essentially the same in the following decades. Those investments yielded good returns: despite staggering global population growth, from 2.5 billion in 1945 to seven billion today, food availability per person has risen by more than 40%.
The problem is that hunger still persists on a vast scale; so, our focus must now shift to ensuring universal access to adequate food. This should be a top priority for governments and a goal embraced by citizens everywhere.
Breaking the vicious cycle of hunger and malnutrition requires complementing the focus on agriculture and rural development (more than 70% of the food-insecure population lives in rural areas of developing countries) with investment in other social and productive programs, including modest but predictable financial transfers to the poorest families. With the right policies in place, the incremental food demand created by these transfers, as well as by school meals programs and nutrition supplements for mothers and infants, could create opportunities for small-scale farmers to expand their output and improve their livelihoods.
In June, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Zero Hunger Challenge at the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference. The FAO has accepted this challenge, and is formally setting its sights on hunger eradication. I look forward with confidence to a progressive expansion in the number of member governments that commit themselves to moving as quickly as possible toward ending hunger and malnutrition within their borders – and to helping other countries to achieve the same goal.
It is never the wrong moment for the world to set its sights on ending hunger, once and for all. Now is the time.