Developing Countries Must Grow More Food – Climate Change and War On Ukraine a Wake-Up Call

As our planet continues to heat up, extreme weather has affected many of us. From the west coast of North America across Europe, the Middle East and Asia to Pakistan and New Zealand, wildfires and flash floods have destroyed homes and property and disrupted the daily lives of millions.

Supply chains, already badly affected by COVID, have been further complicated by drying rivers and waterways. In the more developed countries, insurance covers much of the short-term losses.

But it’s in the developing world where the effects of climate change cause the most acute form of human suffering: starvation. Somalia, in the Horn of Africa is once again in the grip of a devastating drought. Livestock have perished and children are beginning to die.

Parts South Sudan’s farmland have now been under water for the 4th consecutive year because of abnormal floods. Hapless farmers, marooned on islands of higher ground, are living off handouts from the international donor community. No insurance to cover their losses; they’re lucky just to hang on to their lives.

And if we needed a shriller wake-up call about the unfolding global food crisis, Russia’s war on Ukraine has certainly provided that: Much of grain and fertilizer that the world relies on was held hostage by the combatant’s mines and warships in the Black Sea.

Paralyzed by the outdated make-up and role of the Security Council, the political side of the UN System was once again unable to prevent war from breaking out.

Wars and armed conflict rage on in Syria, Libya, Myanmar, Afghanistan, South Sudan, the DRC and, of course, in Ukraine itself. But thanks to UN and Turkish mediation, grain and fertilizer shipments from Ukrainian and Russian ports have resumed under the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

The Joint Coordination Centre (JCC), set up in Istanbul at the end of July, is ensuring that trade and aid in these most basic of commodities can flow out of Black Sea ports again. Amir Abdulla, the World Food Programme’s former Deputy Executive Director is the UN’s coordinator for the Black Sea Grain Initiative and heads up the UN Delegation to the JCC.

Abdulla told me earlier this week that operations are scaling up and grain exports from Ukraine went over 1 million tons in less than a month and to 2 million tons in just the last week. An average of 9 ships a day heading to or from Ukraine are being inspected jointly by UN, Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian inspectors. “While the conflict in Ukraine continues, it has been possible with the help of Turkey and the agreement of Russia and Ukraine, for the UN to get this initiative underway so that the much-needed flow of food and fertilizer moves out of Black Sea ports to the rest of the world”, he said.

“More grain needs to move through to make space in silos for the new harvest. This is critical for the world’s grain supply for next year. Equally important is the urgent export of fertilizer, including ammonia, so that farmers across the world can continue food production at an affordable cost”, he added.

But what about the wider food crisis that is developing and will be with us in the years to come?

The World Food Programme (WFP) warns that 345 million people are already affected by acute food insecurity in 82 countries. And with the global population set to hit at least 10 billion by 2050, the effect of climate change on agriculture will compound the growing problem. There is a desperate need for the developing world to grow more food.

Up to now, WFP has helped ward off mass starvation among the world’s most vulnerable. But to prevent this happening in the years ahead, there’s never been a greater need for it to address the “development” part of its dual mandate by getting back in the business of helping governments and communities grow more food.

In the early-60s when WFP started out, and for it’s first 20 years of operation, around 70% of its budget was spent on development projects, many of them designed to grow more food.

Work on India’s Indira Gandhi Canal, which takes water from the Himalaya mountains to irrigate 2 million hectares of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, started in 1964 with WFP assistance. Workers building the canal were able to buy WFP food at specially set up shops on the banks of the canal network at low, fixed rates.

After WFP assistance ended the World Bank and the EU helped complete the irrigation network. For the last 50 years, millions of tons of additional food grain has been produced every year as a result of this project. Wheat is now reaped annually in the far-flung desert district of Jaisalmer.

As WFP’s Representative in India, Bishow Parajuli says with pride, “This project has changed the lives of millions of ordinary people”, giving real meaning to WFP’s development slogan: changing lives.

In China’s far-western province of Qinghai, it’s much the same story. Here, back in the 80s, WFP helped the local government’s Water Conversancy Bureau construct an irrigation network that today irrigates what was 8,000 hectares of low-yielding land in Haidong Prefecture.

As with India’s Indira Gandhi Canal, the network was built manually, by hand. WFP food was supplied to pay part of the worker’s wages. With assured irrigation, wheat yields doubled within 5 years. Today, this same area of Qinghai is the province’s main wheat producing area with mechanical combines harvesting the crop instead of reaping it by hand.

Why is WFP no longer helping developing countries build major irrigation networks designed to grow more food? Because its focus changed in the early 90s to emergencies or saving lives as WFP calls it today.

That was when WFP took over the responsibility from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR to feed the world’s 25 million refugees on its books as well as the 50-odd million who sort refuge elsewhere in their own country as internally displaced people, or IDPs.

But the pressure of climate change and population growth is causing the pendulum to swing again. At WFP’s last Executive Board (EB) meeting in June, WFP’s Changing Lives Transformation Fund (CLTF) was introduced.

While there was general agreement that WFP’s dual mandate – emergencies and development – must be respected and that humanitarian aid alone is not enough, cash-strapped main donor EB members insisted that saving lives must always take priority over changing lives.

Not surprisingly, most EB members from the developing world wanted WFP to help more with changing lives through stepped-up development assistance. After much debate, which went to closed night sessions, the compromise was a $55 million fund over 5 years, or upto $1.2 million for around 10-15 countries as seed money for projects aimed at supporting national food security.

While this is a start, the amounts earmarked seem like half-hearted steps for the organization that the world set up to help governments prevent mass hunger and starvation. Volli Carucci, Director of WFP’s Resilience and Food Systems Service disagrees, pointing to the many reliance measure that WFP is supporting in the drought-stricken Sahel. ” But more long-term support from donors is needed”, he said. Many countries in Africa need to be growing drought-resistant sorghum and millet rather than maize he told me. Maize is the staple for much of the continent.

Acknowledging “the present and future danger” of the global food crisis, Carucci emphasised that greater awareness of WFP’s current resilience initiatives and its development successes of the past is needed.

Bangladesh, China, Egypt and India have all benefited from WFP assistance in building major irrigation networks. Every year since, millions of tons of food grain has been produced that helps feed their people.

Ethiopia reversed some of its major soil erosion problems by planting millions of trees to protect agricultural land. Always short of cash to pay labour costs, these governments used WFP assistance to help pay the workers on these projects with food.

South/South Cooperation provides a channel to transfer the organizational management and technical expertise of these countries to less developed countries with agricultural potential. Projects like these would also provide employment for the growing hordes of unskilled labour looking for work.

As WFP nears its 60th anniversary it has a full agenda of programming and internal management issues to address. Hopefully, helping the governments and community organizations in developing countries grow more food will figure more prominently than in past decades.

Irrigating and developing more farmland could also help with the integration IDPs into new communities to make them productive citizens instead of living off handouts year after year. It could also help stem the flow of migration to the more-developed countries.

Involving cooperating partners such as UNDP, FAO, World Bank, NGOs and other multilaterals like the EU will be crucial right from the planning stage.

Of course, saving lives will always be the priority of the day. But unless governments act now to ensure that future generations have enough food to eat, parts of the planet run the risk of becoming overwhelmed by the hungry poor.

WFP can and must do more to help countries along the path towards food security, as its mandate dictates. Only then will the world move significantly towards achieving its Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger.

Trevor Page is a former Country and HQ Director of the World Food Programme. He has also served with FAO, UNHCR and what is now the United Nations Department of Political and Peace Building Affairs.

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