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As food prices soared in 2008, imports and donations fell and, in some countries, riots ensued. Food prices are rising again in 2011. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images/ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
As food prices soared in 2008, imports and donations fell and, in some countries, riots ensued. Food prices are rising again in 2011. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images/ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

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Banning the food Band-Aid to help the hungry help themselves Add to ...

As negotiators from around the world try to hammer out a new agreement on international food aid, they face a perplexing situation - global food production is set to rise sharply this year, but so is the number of starving people.

The dichotomy is at the root of a growing debate about international food aid and how it should be structured. And it has prompted the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to issue a call for developed countries to put more emphasis on agricultural development and less on providing food assistance during emergencies.

"It is increasingly recognized that tackling an emergency by solely covering immediate humanitarian needs will not provide a sustainable solution," the FAO said in a recent report. "Interventions should instead have a longer-term horizon and address the underlying reasons for food insecurity."

According to the FAO, nearly 80 per cent of total food assistance from developed countries is channelled to emergency relief measures. That compares to 20 per cent in 1990. By contrast, the amount of foreign aid devoted to agriculture projects fell to 6 per cent in 2008 from about 13 per cent in the 1990s, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Officials from several countries, including Canada, are meeting in London to negotiate a new Food Aid Convention. The 44-year old convention has not been substantially altered since 2002 and instead has been extended repeatedly. That could happen again, but officials at the UN and elsewhere are hoping for fundamental changes.

"It's an important treaty, but it's badly out of date and needs to be updated," said Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an umbrella group based in Winnipeg that works on food projects around the world.

For decades, changes to the convention didn't matter much. Prices for agricultural commodities like wheat, corn and rice were relatively low and stable, giving many governments more incentives to import food, or accept food donations, instead of investing in domestic agricultural production. That changed when food prices skyrocketed in 2008, prompting riots in dozens of countries. Prices fell back in 2009, but have started climbing again, and many food commodities are now close to 2008 levels.

The food crisis prompted several countries, including Canada, to respond outside the Food Aid Convention. For example, in 2009, many G20 countries pledged $22-billion (U.S.) over three years toward agricultural development. The United States has unveiled a $3.5-billion food security program called Feed the Future, and African leaders pledged to increase their annual spending on agriculture by 10 per cent. The percentage of foreign aid devoted to agriculture has also started to move back up.

There have been successes. Malawi doubled its corn production and became an exporter thanks to government programs that helped farmers buy seeds and fertilizer. Vietnam has gone from desperately needing food aid to become the world's second largest rice exporter because of improvements in irrigation and high-yield rice grains. And prices for some key foodstuffs have been falling in countries like Cambodia, Kenya and Ethiopia because of good harvests. Overall food production is expected to keep pace easily with population growth this year due largely to booming production from countries like Brazil, China and India.

Despite the progress, the UN and others point out that the number of starving people keeps rising. "Although the world now produces enough to feed its population, the number of undernourished has increased since the mid-1990s, reaching more than one billion persons in 2009," the OECD and FAO said in a joint Agricultural Outlook report last year. "Paradoxically, many of the world's food-insecure people are themselves farmers."

The problem is that people in many countries can't afford rising food prices and governments are running out of funds to keep up food subsidies. Farmers in these countries can't take advantage of rising global commodity prices because of poor infrastructure, inefficient farming methods and government subsidies.

The demands for biofuel are also diverting crops away from human consumption. While U.S. farmers are expected to grow close to record volumes of corn this year, roughly 40 per cent of the harvest will go to make ethanol. That compares to about 20 per cent in 2008. Meanwhile, U.S. politicians are trying to cut that country's food aid budget by as much as 30 per cent.

Despite the challenges, there is optimism among people like Stuart Clark, an analyst at the Foodgrains Bank who chairs a coalition of international aid agencies called the Trans-Atlantic Food Assistance Dialogue. "As agriculture strengthens, it's going to have a tremendously positive effect on reducing poverty," he said. "That's what we've been missing for the last 30 years as we've watched hunger numbers climb, because nobody wanted to invest in agriculture."

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