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The G-8 Announcement on Agricultural Development: Can it Save the World From Hunger?

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The new pledge to commit $20 billion to global agricultural development, announced at this week's G-8 summit, has the potential to dramatically improve the livelihoods of more than 700 million of the world's poor living in rural areas. If realized, this would be the most significant investment in the developing world's agricultural systems since the first Green Revolution in the 1960 and 70s, which saved millions of lives from hunger and created new agricultural infrastructure in parts of the world. Although this pledge should be commended, if the world's hungriest are to benefit, President Obama and leaders from the other G-8 nations will need to provide sustained leadership, funding over the long-term, and support for this effort, or it cannot succeed.

The number of people who live on less than $1 per day reached 1 billion this year. Over 70 percent of these are smallholder farmers and their families living in rural areas of the developing world that lack the technology and skills to produce enough food to feed themselves. The majority are women working to support their families on less than 2 hectares of land. Conditions for the world's farmers are only expected to worsen in years ahead as populations burgeon, the effects of climate change decrease their lands' arability, and fresh water becomes scarcer.

The G-8 announcement signals a significant change in U.S. assistance policy, which has heretofore focused almost exclusively on delivering food to the world's hungry (clearly necessary to provide humanitarian assistance and deal with famine and natural disaster) instead of also helping the developing world produce its own food and create the self-sufficiency of long-term agricultural infrastructure. In 2006, the U.S. government spent 20 times more on food aid than on support for agriculture. The international community's support for agricultural development in Africa has declined 70 percent since the 1980s. The impact of this neglect on the continent is clear - while population has rapidly grown in the last decade, crop yields have declined.

Left unchecked, food insecurity leads to regional instability. We saw in last year's food crisis how quickly escalating food prices can lead to violent political confrontations that compromise weak governments. The backlash to rising food prices makes a lot of sense considering that agriculture comprises a large part of most developing nations' economies: in Pakistan, the agricultural industry accounts for 25 percent of the nation's gross domestic product alone.

Given the importance of food security, a renewed international effort towards building food systems in the developing world, and helping people feed themselves, holds great promise for supporting political stability and economic prosperity if it is sustained for these next three years and beyond. In fact, no country has successfully been lifted out of poverty without significant development of its agricultural economy. A report released by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggests, if funds are committed and used effectively to support agriculture research, education, and extension, it is possible to develop systems to feed the world's hungry, and support future population growth. Research suggests that significant investments in agricultural research alone could lift 282 million people from poverty by 2020.

President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and others in the Administration, as well as the other G-8 leaders, have taken the first step towards solving the problem of world hunger by including a commitment to agricultural investment as a key part of the solution. Agricultural policies may not hold the same appeal or glamour as those on climate change or energy (although they are inextricably linked), but the first Green Revolution proves that if funded and sustained, agricultural development can change the world and materially alleviate poverty. The commitment of the G-8 leaders, if given the right support, and especially the right leadership, can have this same impact.

Dan Glickman is the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture; Catherine Bertini is the former Executive Director of the UN World Food Program. Both cochair The Chicago Council on Global Affairs' study on global agricultural development. Its final report, Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty, is available online at www.thechicagocouncil.org/globalagdevelopment.