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Food Security: The View From Rome

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Food is often in short supply. The availability of and access to food is also, and has always been, highly political. Poor wheat harvests imported into Rome between 56 to 58BC led to grain shortages and fluctuating prices. As a result the Roman mob became volatile and "on one occasion crowds besieged the senate and threatened to burn the senators alive, apparently encouraged by the tribune Clodius who had passed a law increasing the number of people entitled to subsidised grain" (excerpt from Gordon Conway's book One Billion Hungry: Can we feed the world?).

Today food security is equally political and the 2007/08 food price spike led to political and economic instability and social unrest in both poor and developed nations. In Bangladesh, 10,000 workers rioted close to Dhaka, smashing cars and buses and vandalising factories in anger at high food prices and low wages. In Burkina Faso rioting broke out in the country's second and third largest cities over food price increases of over 65%. In Cameroon large scale rioting in protest against inflating food and fuel prices saw at least seven people killed in the worst unrest seen in the country in over fifteen years. And the list goes on with unrest seen in Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Haiti, Egypt, Indonesia, Mozambique, Senegal, Somalia and Yemen. Russia and Mexico froze food prices to avoid public backlash, the Pakistan government deployed military to protect food reserves from being seized and Brazil announced a temporary ban on the export of rice.

As 'One Billion Hungry: Can we feed the world' explains, these acute crises are part of a chronic crisis; the paradox of food insecurity that we face today is that there is enough food to feed the global population yet around one billion people are chronically hungry and another billion are obese. In his book Gordon Conway lays out the routes for achieving a fairer, more productive, stable and resilient global food system. On the 27th-28th February 2013, he took this vision to the three Rome-based UN agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

In a joint FAO-IFAD-WFP seminar, Gordon presented his strategy for tackling global food insecurity. Director General of FAO, José Graziano Da Silva, President of IFAD, Kanayo Nwanze and Executive Director of WFP, Ertharin Cousins, discussed their opinions of his book and the issues they see as crucial for eradicating hunger. A strong theme emerging from both the joint seminar as well as seminars at IFAD on climate change and agriculture and at WFP on availability and access, was that more collaboration was urgently needed.

The FAO, IFAD and WFP's strategies, to provide technical expertise, international financial assistance and food aid, respectively, are unique but complementary and seeking to be increasingly collaborative. They are working together on technical projects and emergency response, advocacy and communication to enhance their overall impact.

On the advocacy side, the three agencies present a united voice in contributing to high level policy meetings such as the UN Secretary General's High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, at the Doha International Conference on Financing for Development and the UN High-level Panel on the Right to Food. They are also working together to influence the post 2015 Millennium Development Goal agenda.

In Mozambique, the agencies have been collaborating on the ground to build community value chains and link farmer associations to markets. WFP purchases maize and beans directly from stallholder organisations in-country. FAO provides technical expertise to help reduce post-harvest losses, upgrade and monitor product quality. IFAD is involved in mobilizing funds through financial partners to improve access to credit for the these farmer organisations.

The Mozambique country team's collaboration, hard work, innovation and impact was recognised in February 2013, when they were given the Award of Excellence: Working Together in the Field, an award established by the three agency principals in September 2012. What started in 2008 as a small pilot project to improve production quality and reduce post-harvest losses for Mozambican smallholder farmers, has reached 17 000 farmers with increases of up to 30% in marketable surplus in three years. The country team are now working on implementing the Programme for Accelerating Progress towards MDG1c (eradicating hunger) in Mozambique.

And not only are the agencies working with each other but with other organisations too. This can be alongside other UN agencies, for example the WFP, FAO and UNICEF are working together to develop a strategy for building resilience in Somalia, but also with external partners. For example IFAD, the World Bank and the Government of Ethiopia work together on implementation support to the Pastoral Community Development Programme (PCDP) in Ethiopia.

The Committee on Food Security, which sits under the FAO and was established in 1974, brings together a wide range of actors on food security to coordinate global thinking, advise countries and regions, promote accountability and best practice and develop a global strategic framework. The Committee comprises five categories of participants: UN agencies and other UN bodies; civil society and NGOs; international agricultural research institutions; international and regional financial institutions and; private sector associations and philanthropic foundations. Through its High-Level Expert Panel, created in 2009, it provides scientific and knowledge-based analysis and advice on policy-relevant issues. Most recently the CFS has agreed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure and is currently working on principles for responsible agricultural investments.

Back in Roman times, "the price of grain eventually fell when Cicero proposed Pompey be put in charge of the grain supply". Today leadership to end the global food crisis may yet again come from Rome. Working together on the ground and influencing global policy is clearly an imperative for these agencies but for the future so too is their power in raising the profile of food insecurity, hunger and agriculture to ensure political will to eradicate hunger is substantial and maintained.