As World Food Day focuses attention on global hunger, we find ourselves at a crossroads of opportunity and risk. For the first time, it is within our reach to eliminate hunger entirely -- removing an age-old scourge that kills over 3 million children per year and costs 2%-3% of global GDP (over $2 trillion a year) in lost productivity.
On the positive side, the number of hungry people worldwide has fallen to about 805 million, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization; and the world is poised to meet the Millennium Development Goal that called for halving global hunger by 2015. A growing chorus of global leaders and experts is now saying that we can eliminate hunger within our lifetime if we make a concerted effort.
On the negative side, several challenging global trends could intensify in some of the regions that are least-equipped to combat them. The most significant of these is climate change, which may reduce food production -- due to droughts and floods -- in some of the world's most hungry and densely-populated regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. As inequality increases in some countries, pockets of poverty and hunger could grow. And, if global cooperation declines due to geopolitical tensions or competition over resources, coordinated efforts to prevent or address food crises will be weakened.
The choice is up to us. To end hunger and achieve a well-performing global food system -- one that delivers healthy nourishment, environmental sustainability and decent livelihoods for all -- we will need to intensify efforts at all levels. Everyone will need to step up -- governments, companies, civil society and farmers organizations, the international community, and regular citizens who are launching innovative efforts in their own communities.
Three "quick wins" to ramp up progress
Stepping up our efforts requires new thinking, unusual alliances, and both short- and long-term solutions. Of the many actions that are needed to improve our food systems, several stand out as "quick wins" -- both feasible and high-impact interventions that could make a difference in the near term.
Reducing waste: Currently, we waste nearly one-third of the food we produce. In poor countries, most of the waste takes place during harvest, storage and transport due to limited infrastructure and resources. In rich countries, much of the waste is on the consumer end -- food that is purchased or prepared then thrown out. Reducing this waste -- and making better use of the food we already produce -- will help meet global needs while reducing environmental impact and putting more money in consumers' and farmers' pockets. This requires investing in better infrastructure on the production side -- such as transport, storage and processing - while encouraging customers and food service providers to avoid waste on the consumption side.
Empowering women: In some regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of farmers are women. If the world's women farmers had equal access to resources, financing and training programmes, global productivity could rise by over 20% and the number of hungry people globally could be reduced by 150 million. Governments, companies and community organizations can strengthen efforts to reach and empower women farmers and entrepreneurs through financing, training and other support programmes.
Improving water efficiency: The world's water resources are in crisis, with 3.5 billion people projected to live in water-scarce regions by 2025. Agriculture uses 70% of the fresh water tapped for human use, often in inefficient ways. Well-designed policy and economic incentives can encourage efficient water use by farmers, particularly in large-scale commercial operations; and technology innovations can provide cost-effective solutions to help smallholder farmers irrigate their crops. These solutions will become ever more urgently needed as a changing climate demands "climate-smart" production strategies that can withstand increasing water scarcity.
Why partnerships matter
For the longer term, achieving a transformation of food systems to enable greater productivity, sustainability and inclusivity in the face of oncoming shocks and challenges will require one key ingredient: partnership. Partnerships will play out on three levels:
Country-led transformation: Global progress is ultimately the sum of many different countries' efforts. Large-scale action is best focused at the country level, where a government-led vision and goals for improving a country's food system can serve as the framework for coordinating efforts among all actors in the system. This type of coordinated approach is not easy, and global organizations can play a role in supporting them. For example, the World Economic Forum has helped to catalyse multistakeholder partnerships supporting national agriculture priorities in 17 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America through its New Vision for Agriculture, Grow Africa and Grow Asia initiatives. These initiatives have engaged over 300 organizations and mobilized over $10 billion in investment commitments, benefiting over 3 million smallholder farmers.
Global cooperation: Forward-looking coordination among governments and global organizations is needed to foresee and respond to crises - such as climate-driven drops in food supplies that could lead to price spikes - and ensure open trading systems as production and consumption patterns shift. Both official structures such as the Committee on World Food Security, and informal networks such as the New Vision for Agriculture's Transformation Leaders Network, which shares experiences and best practices among country partnership initiatives, can help provide resilient coordination structures.
Community action: Many innovations and new approaches are emerging at the community level, ranging from urban gardens to youth initiatives and farm-to-market programmes. These provide a vital source of new ideas and public support for sustainable food systems.
A new set of Sustainable Development Goals will soon be adopted to guide global efforts in the next 15 years; they call for the global community to "end hunger in all its forms, everywhere." This goal can be achieved through a major effort from grass-roots communities to global leaders, coordinated through new communications tools and partnerships.