Highlights from “Plenary 2: Effecting Change, Providing Food Security”

April 19, 2010  • Josh Weissburg

Cross-posted from the Global Philanthropy Forum blog.

Now we dig into the specific issue of food security. Robert Zeigler of the International Rice Research Institute recalls reading books when he started working on food issues in the 60’s about massive famines predicted for the decade to follow. Scientific progress helped us to win some of the early battles, he notes, and philanthropy (particularly the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations) played a pivotal role in stemming food shortages in Asia. “We won those battles,” says Zeigler, “but we still must win the war.”

Gebisa Ejeta of Purdue University notes, though, that while scientific progress does help to win battles against hunger, the food surpluses it has produced must be paired with capacity building at the local level within countries. Otherwise, these food flows simply overwhelm the local market and prevent it from growing to sustain its own needs over time. Neal Keny-Guyer of Mercy Corps Food went on, noting that food aid often begins – with good reason – as a massive effort to meet immediate needs, but once the spigot is turned on, it is very difficult to turn it back off because of political pressures. Donors must resist the temptation, he says, to deliver aid that will overwhelm the local agriculture sector. Sometimes food aid is absolutely necessary, but donors must keep in mind from the get-go the tendency of such aid to depress local prices and impair lasting growth in the agriculture sector.

One common thread running through the panelists’ comments revolves around the need to scale different elements of food security (from production to the market mechanisms needed to take that food to market) in parallel. These are interlocking pieces, and donors should look carefully at which elements are needed most within a given context.