The new food aid paradigm

Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack signaled a major shift in U.S. food aid policy from providing American-grown emergency food aid to investing in agricultural productivity in developing countries:
"It is a more comprehensive, holistic view of food security that focuses on the notion that we want to make food more available, we want to make it accessible and we want to make sure that it is properly used," Vilsack said in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "If we can help countries become more productive themselves then they will be in a better position to feed their own people," he said.
The World Bank was already moving in that direction. Then this week, the G8 followed suit:
The G8 countries will this week announce a “food security initiative”, committing more than $12bn for agricultural development over the next three years, in a move that signals a further shift from food aid to long-term investments in farming in the developing world.
In many ways this "teach a man to fish" approach is a welcome change (although not unprecedented - under none other than the recently much-discussed Robert McNamara, the World Bank made a major push into agriculture in the 1970s, with mixed results).

On the other hand, improved productivity alone cannot eliminate hunger - the UN Hunger Task Force estimates that only ~50% of the now more than 1 billion undernourished people in the world are smallholder farmers, with the remainder mostly rural landless or urban. Improved productivity can move the poorest smallholders from net food buyers to net sellers, but it is unlikely to have more than a marginal impact on world cereal prices, so social safety nets will remain an indispensable part of the food security equation until economic growth can raise incomes to the point where food becomes affordable to the rest.

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