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April 15, 2011

World Bank Discusses High Food Prices

by Steve Baragona

Global food prices have risen by 36 percent in the past year, according to figures released this week by the World Bank. The Bank hosted its spring meetings in Washington this week, where it called on policymakers to focus on food security. Experts say that for many developing countries, that means supporting the interests of small farmers.

Outside the World Bank's headquarters in Washington, D.C., a giant electronic display is tallying the number of chronically hungry people in the world today. As the digits tick up toward one billion, the World Bank is calling on policymakers to put food first.

A panel of experts discussed today's high food prices. World Bank sustainable development expert Inger Anderson said small farmers are at the center of the hunger problem.

"The majority of the poor farmers are small farmers. And the voice of the small farmers is not heard sufficiently. And they are actually the ones that are feeding by far the largest proportion of the world's poor."

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda with the African policy analysis group FANRPAN says small farmers face a range of challenges, especially in Africa.

"We are using seeds that are not best-placed to produce the best. The soil management practices are not applied. The water - 95 percent of our agriculture is rain-fed - which means in bad years you can harvest nothing."

Rwanda's minister of agriculture, Agnes Kalibata, was on the panel representing a country that experts praise for its commitment to agriculture. She said Rwanda has benefited from organizing small farmers into cooperatives.

"They access inputs - that's seeds, improved seeds, fertilizers. Extension, which would be extremely difficult to deliver without this consolidation. And then, technologies on planting and production. In that forum, also, farmers are able to look at opportunities of markets. To open up their minds to think about markets, which they would never have done as individual farmers," said Kalibata.

Rwanda was the first country to agree to an African Union program to commit 10 percent of its national budget to agriculture. Kalibata said that kind of political leadership is essential if governments are to succeed in reducing hunger.

"The worst form of abuse to mankind is hunger. Once we agree on that, we do the right thing by the farmer," she said.

Beyond exercising leadership, says the World Bank's Anderson, there are other things governments can do.

"Ensuring that there are the kinds of roads that can move the produce from point A to point B to market. And ensuring that there are no policies that obstruct farmers from selling their goods at the appropriate price," said Anderson.

Many factors are involved in improving small farmers' productivity, from seeds and water to transportation and access to markets. FANRPAN's Sibanda said policymakers must tackle them all.

"We cannot prioritize one over the other. There's got to be a holistic approach with the ultimate aim that food is more available," said Sibanda.

With food prices high and demand increasing, experts say the way to avert worsening hunger in the world is to put food first.