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Asian know-how can feed a hungry planet

This is contributed by Eva Clayton, a former US lawmaker. She was participating at the United Nations climate change debate taking place in Durban, South Africa.

POLICYMAKERS from around the world have descended on Durban, South Africa, for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference.

While it is appropriate that key policy makers involve themselves in the effort to reverse the ill effects of man-made climate change, it is increasingly apparent that amid the discussions of greenhouse gas emissions and ozone compromise, world leaders have lost sight of the daily battle for survival that is waged by an ever increasing number of people from poor and underdeveloped countries.

Climate change is indeed a global threat that must be addressed; but so, too, is hunger and poverty. What is needed is a coordinated approach that seeks to also address food security, economic growth and poverty reduction, while also combating climate change.

Tropical regions are home to some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. Millions of men and women in these areas lack reliable access to food, jobs, education and healthcare.

Recent famines and natural disasters in the tropics illustrate the need for robust and sustainable agriculture development. While the Durban climate talks are critically important, they will mean little if men and women in the global tropics go hungry.

This means we must focus on agriculture production as a driver of economic growth.

For a model, the delegates in Africa can take note of the experience of tropical Asia. Once-poor nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and others have harnessed technology and advanced agricultural techniques to feed their people and tap into export markets.

Asian nations now grow an abundance of papaya, coconut, banana, palm and other food staples. They increasingly feed their own people and, as importantly, trade across the region.

They are climbing the income and development ladder as a result, while showing concern for the climate and the environment.

Some far-sighted African policymakers and business leaders are confident Africa can do something similar. And they are working with experienced entrepreneurs from the Asia-Pacific region to act on this potential.

As former president of Ghana John Kufuor wrote this week, “commercial palm oil represents an exciting opportunity for Africa.

“It has the potential to provide significantly higher returns to smallholders than their current crops or become an inexpensive African-produced source of food, particularly when years of drought have left the continent reliant on vegetable oil imports to meet demand.”

President Kufuor is right; palm oil can play a vital role in Africa’s future as it has in Asia’s recent economic rise. The oil palm is native to the continent and thrives in sub-Saharan Africa’s moist, wet climate.

It is a high-calorie, nutritious product that will be a key component of any anti-hunger effort. The insight, technology and hard-won business savvy of Asian palm oil investors will help kick-start Africa’s nascent palm oil industry.

The continent is expected to more than double its population by 2030. It is one of the fastest growing regions in the world.

It is worth noting some of the greatest benefits of agriculture-led development can accrue to smallholders, particularly women farmers. Malaysia set the global standard in this regard when it implemented its innovative Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) programme to ensure that smallholders shared equitably in the rising prosperity that comes with plantation agriculture.

This path-breaking Malaysian programme inspired Liberia’s Outgrowers Scheme, an effort to support Liberia’s small farmers. Nigeria is also emulating Malaysia’s successful Felda programme.

Many of the delegates assembled in Africa note that climate change increases the risk of widespread hunger and famine as the social justice non-governmental organisation Oxfam pointed out in a new report. This is no doubt true.

But the climate need not change for hunger and famine to destroy the lives of millions of people. This sad state of affairs is with us today.

The discussion on hunger must be raised to the same level as the global conversation on climate. This is why food security must rise to the top of the development agenda discussed in South Africa and beyond.

A concerted effort by policymakers and the business community will make the days of global hunger a thing of the past.

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