Food security

Glenn DenningGlenn Denning


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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith, and I'm here today with Professor Glenn Denning. He's a professor of Professional Practice at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Thank you for joining me, Glenn.

Professor Glenn Denning:

You’re welcome.

Matt Smith:

Now, I've been told that you're the man to talk to about food security. What is food security?

Professor Glenn Denning:

Food security is by definition the ability of people in household, food security at the national level to provide the food needs to live a healthy and productive life. And we look at food security beyond food, to food and nutritional security. So it's not just about the amount of food, which is measured by energy requirements, but it's also the quality of the food.

It's a global aim. It's encompassed in the Millennium Development Goals about reducing hunger by 50% by the year 2015. What's actually happened is we have more hungry people today than we had when the Millennium Development Goals were dreamt up.

Roughly a billion people on the planet don't have enough food right now. That is something to be very concerned about. Probably 2 billion people don't have adequate nutrition and they have various kinds of micronutrient deficiencies.

All of these things don't just affect the quality of your life--nobody likes to go to bed hungry--but it also affects your ability to grow and develop intellectually and socially. So if we fail to address hunger and under-nutrition, we're actually compromising the capabilities of the next generation.

Matt Smith:

So how do you go about addressing a global problem such as that?

Professor Glenn Denning:

We sometimes forget, you know, about one in six, one in seven of the world's population are going hungry, and so the first thing is to bring it to the attention of leaders all over the world that this is something we have to be serious about.

Now we've actually done that and we've been reasonably successful for about two decades. Agriculture and food security were really put on the backburner. Investment went down, donor nations, even Australia, really were not putting in resources. And even poor countries were not themselves putting sufficient resources into agriculture and food security issues.

A few years ago, the World Bank woke up to this and actually produced a major report recognizing that they have neglected agriculture. And more recently with the global food crisis, when all food prices, even right here in Australia, went through the roof, it was realized that we've really neglected agriculture.

We've neglected food production. We've also neglected to realize that there's a large portion of society in poor countries, their problem is not availability of food in the marketplace. It's income and access to that food.

The way to address that at all levels--at the global level, at the country level, at the village level--is to think of food security as being about availability of food, which is to do with the production of food and enough to go around.

Secondly, access to food, which is ensuring that people have the incomes to be able to purchase food in the marketplace or, if necessary, if we have to subsidize to provide vouchers or food stamps, whatever is needed to ensure that people have access to food.

And the third is utilization of food. And what that's all about is that even if you have food, you have to be able to use it, and that means you should be drinking clean water, you shouldn't be down with malaria, and you should understand aspects of nutrition.

Matt Smith:

What about attacking it from the other direction, as in increasing food production? Is that a factor at all?

Professor Glenn Denning:

It is a factor. We've been a bit complacent there as well over the last 30 years or so. Food production more than doubled in Asia, and if you go back to the 1960s, there was actually a great fear that a Malthusian catastrophe will take place in Asia because population was going to outstrip the ability of these countries to produce food.

Matt Smith:

Didn't they change the sort of crops that they were all planting?

Professor Glenn Denning:

Well, they didn't change the crops. Basically what happened was they changed the technology of growing the main staple crops, which were rice and wheat. And it was the technology based on research, combined with better policies and institutions, these things came together, and these countries that we feared would sink actually ended up generating more than enough food. And even countries like India had surpluses at the time when people thought that they wouldn't be able to feed themselves.

Matt Smith:

I think we buy it now as well.

Professor Glenn Denning:

Exactly. On the one hand, that's Asia. But actually, Africa--30% of the population in Africa today are basically undernourished. They don't have enough food. So, a lot of that was due to the fact that you didn't have that green revolution that we called it for Asia. We didn't have that green revolution in Africa.

There are a number of reasons for that. Complicated. A lot of the crops that succeeded in Asia, the rice and the wheat and so on, were not very important in Africa. Africa is a much more diverse continent than Asia. Infrastructure is much poorer. Roads, rail and so on mean that the cost of bringing fertilizer and the like to places where they can increase production is much more difficult.

And of course there's been political problems, there've been urban biases, and all of these things have sort of come together. Health problems, too. It's the only region in the world where per capita food production has actually gone down. So there's a sort of stark difference between Asia and Africa.

Now the good news is that there's actually been a lot of recent interest in Africa and I think there is a lot of political commitment now to boost production in Africa.

So, I think that will be helpful. It's necessary, but not sufficient. There is still this issue of ensuring equitable access to food, not just simply that on a national scale you produce enough food. You've also got to make sure that those who are sort of struggling in terms of maybe living on very small farms or living in urban slums and so on, that they would have access to food.

Matt Smith:

Can you tell me about the work that you've done in Africa?

Professor Glenn Denning:

I've set up a center called the Millennium Development Goals Center, and this center was dedicated to working with governments and other organizations, with NGOs and even private sector, around Africa to address all of the Millennium Development Goals. But my own personal area that I focused on was the whole area of food production in improving food security.

I think we've had some real successes there. One of the countries where we've worked with closely for the last four years is Malawi. Malawi was historically a country that depended on food aid. But with some very progressive policies and very good leadership by the president there, the government actually made fertilizer and seed more available to the small-scale farmers. And for four consecutive years now, they've doubled production and basically generated a surplus.

So we have the interesting situation. The problems that Zimbabwe has, Zimbabwe used to produce surplus food for the region. Zimbabwe is getting food from Malawi now.

It's a success story. It sort of stands out as a beacon of hope. And many other countries in the region are kind of looking at the experience of Malawi and say, "Well, we should be able to do that."

Now that wasn't easy. There were actually a lot of, let's say, negative views from some of the donor agencies. Now, these donor agencies have arguments that they weren't in favor of supporting subsidies.

Now, the irony of that is many of those donor agencies were supporting their own farmers through subsidies. So even though they didn't get much support from donors, the Malawi government said, "Look, we'll just do it ourselves." So they did it themselves with their own resources.

And that sounds very nice and a good homegrown solution. The downside of that is the resources that you put into agriculture clearly had to take out of other sectors like health, like education, like infrastructure.

Matt Smith:

Like other Millennium Development Goals, right?

Professor Glenn Denning:

Yeah, yeah. If you're a central African country with relatively limited revenues from exports and maybe from remittances, and you've got all these problems and you're spending $10 per person per year on health compared to thousands of dollars per person per year on health in rich countries, it's a tough decision.

Why should you choose between a bed net, a new school, or seed and fertilizer? I mean, it's a tragedy that countries like that actually have to make those kinds of hard decisions.

And the main reason is that the western world, the rich countries, basically have not lived up to their commitments associated with the Millennium Development Goals. The rich countries were supposed to deliver 0.7%. That sort of--it's nothing. Seventy cents in a hundred dollars towards international development. There are still only five or six countries in the world that have reached that target.

And now we've had an economic crisis, and everybody is saying, "Well, we've got to tighten our belts. We can't afford these things anymore." Yet, trillions of dollars were found to bail out financial institutions, to bail out motor companies. Trillions of dollars, or at least a trillion or two, have been found to support wars around the world.

And when we're only talking about perhaps $100 billion or more, $200 billion at the most, to actually bring transformational change to hundreds of millions of people around the world, it's a bit incoherent for me to think why we're not able to deliver on these promises.

Matt Smith:

Asia and Africa and I suppose in some ways South America would be the problem areas, the places that really need help to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals. Does this sort of response from the First World countries and the fact that we now have the global financial crisis and the fact that there's only five years to go until the goal should be met mean that they should be pretty much helping themselves? They shouldn't think that they can rely on outside help?

Professor Glenn Denning:

Well, many of them have given up, to be honest. I've met many of these leaders. And there was recently the G8 meeting in Italy in L'Aquila. They came out with a statement supporting agriculture and food security and committed $20 billion over three years. This is the G8 countries.

You communicate this to your friends working in governments in different parts of the world and they laugh at it. They said, "It's not going to happen. We've heard it all before."

Matt Smith:

Not going to help or not going to happen?

Professor Glenn Denning:

It's not going to happen. Money's not going to come. In 2004, at Gleneagles, the G8 committed to doubling aid to Africa by 2010. It's not going to happen. They won't come close to doubling. They may not come close to 20% increase.

So that's how bad it is. I mean, I think a lot of developing nations have lost their faith in the international system. We're very quick to point our finger at poor countries when we see examples of corruption, bad management and bad governance. We're very quick to do that.

I think we've got to look at ourselves. We've got to say, Right. Isn't it also bad governance when you get up on the stage and say you're going to double aid to Africa or you're going to put $20 billion into food security and agriculture, and then you don't deliver it? You just hope it's forgotten?

There are problems all around. I mean, it's not one way or the other, but I think there are serious governance issues in the whole international system. I don't have an answer to how it's going to be solved. We've got to get that message out.

And here in Australia I think there's both potential and also challenges ahead. And I think the Australian public needs to keep the government honest about what it has promised. It has promised, it has recommitted, the Rudd government has recommitted to the Millennium Development Goals, and that's great. We're glad to hear that.

Another is, of course the Australian priorities are Asia and the Pacific, but there has also been a stated commitment to re-engage with Africa. It hasn't happened yet, but we're very hopeful that Australia could really engage with a number of African countries. I think there are some real opportunities there. There's a lot of similarities and a lot of common challenges facing the two continents. They're both very dry continents, they have historical connections to agriculture, they're both going to be hit pretty hard by climate change, they have water constraints, a number of these things. I think there are some common issues, common problems, common opportunities to work together. So I'm really hoping to sort of follow up and really keep Africa on the agenda for Australian aid in the future.

Matt Smith:

What is your next objective once you, well, leave Australia, I suppose? What are you looking forward to in the future?

Professor Glenn Denning:

I guess it's more of the same. We'd probably have to step up our efforts to ensure that--next year is 2010 and that's kind of a significant milestone towards the MDGs in 2015. And there's going to be a big UN conference in New York, the general assembly meeting in September 2010, and no doubt Mr. Rudd or, whoever is the Australian prime minister, will be there, and I think it's important that he and other leaders more than recommit themselves to the MDGs.

Words are cheap. You can say that, but I would like to see those nations really come together and make some hard commitments, real hard commitments, time-bound, amounts of money, specific outcomes really laid on the table.

You know, I'm still not very optimistic that the MDGs will be achieved in most countries. But the point is, that shouldn't hold us back from absolutely making every effort to ensure that we're as close as possible to achieving those MDGs. Because that's not the end. Most of the MDGs are kind of achieving part of the job. We want to end poverty by 2025 if we can. What we need to do is by 2015, create a kind of a platform upon which to move forward for the next ten years. And that's what I'd really like to see.

Matt Smith:

Professor Glenn Denning, thank you for your time.

Professor Glenn Denning:

You’re Welcome.