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On World Food Day, Expert Says Much to be Done to End Food Crisis

Last June, before the current financial crisis, world leaders met in Rome to address the food crisis. Severe shortages and high prices resulted in commitments for greater investment in agricultural productivity.

Many parts of sub-Saharan Africa have been hit hard by the food crisis, but now, solutions to the problem may be affected by the current global financial turmoil. Among the groups following the situation is IFPRI, the International Food Policy Research Institute. Todd Benson is the head of the institute's Uganda Strategy Support Program. From Kampala, he spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about food security issues on the continent.

"It's a very heterogeneous continent, as you're aware. And Uganda is probably one of the more optimistic places to be based here in Africa. This is a food basket. It looks like the rains are good. The food is still flowing. That said, we still have plenty of people that really are having a lot of trouble getting the food they need, particularly Karamoja (in northeastern Uganda). But outside of Uganda, in the region, places like Kenya, that's just being faced with a whole series of problems with their food security linked to the post-election violence, to some bad cropping conditions. And where do you go to when you have a food deficit? You certainly want to look at the international markets. So this financial meltdown is going to cause all sorts of problems clearly," he says.

Asked whether the economic crisis has had any immediate effects on the food situation, Benson says, "From the financial crisis, no, not yet… We are warned it will be a couple of weeks, couple of months, before we start seeing the effects, as the reduced demand in the developed world translates into reduced demand for the products of the developing world, like Uganda. So, this may be a slow onset sort of crisis in terms of the food insecurity."

Many plans were proposed at June's food summit, but had many actually been put in place before the financial crisis hit? Benson says, "No, but that's in part because…sort of the short term responses that you can make to the food crisis really have to do with increasing agricultural production. I mean in a sustainable way, that's the response you want to see. And that depends on the cropping cycle. And we just haven't had enough time since June to see any enhanced production due to increased use of inputs (such as fertilizers) or increased farmer response to the higher prices even."

IFPRI has made a number recommendations "to address the current food crisis and improve long-term functioning of the world food system." The first is Productivity and Research. "Working to enhance productivity. If Africa's agricultural productivity remains quite stagnant, if we're just getting subsistence level production out of our field, it's unlikely that we're ever going to see sustainable increases in agricultural production that will meet growing needs for food by the rising population, as well as to enable some sort of economic growth to come out of that. So we really need to see at the individual farmer field…ideally doubling the amount of grain or bananas or whatever the crop may be out of the same plot of land. That really is fundamental," says Benson.

The second recommendation is Nutrition and Social Protection. "The people who are most at risk, who bear the greatest brunt of the long term effects of any hunger, any malnutrition, are your most vulnerable people in the population. So, your young children and their mothers…need to be in good health, good nutrition, in order that the child is born and can grow up with the full potential," he says.

Finally, IFPRI emphasizes Market and Trade. "That is very important to come to a sustainable food security situation here in Africa. As I noted, Uganda is really a food basket, but a lot of our regional trading partners will not necessarily benefit from the surpluses that we produce if we can't engage in trade with them. There's any number of reasons that there are barriers to trade, anything from infrastructure, to policies at the border, to problems in just getting the information back and forth as to who has the food and who needs the food," says Benson.

IFPRI estimates it will cost $14 billion a year in global public investment to solve the food crisis and meet the Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty and hunger in half by 2015. Benson admits with the current financial crisis it may be difficult to achieve that goal. However, he remains hopeful because there's greater awareness of the problem among world leaders.