Food Security a difficult issue to resolve

Speakers offered business solutions and opinions but eventually, in one of the set piece speeches, Turki Al-Rasheed set out the less well-received political aspects of food security.

JEDDAH: The topic of food security took center stage at the
Jeddah Economic Forum Monday afternoon. At the aggregate level it was
agreed that there is enough food to feed the world, and that food
insecurity at local levels is due to inadequate production and supply
together with uneven access and distribution.

Speakers offered business solutions and opinions but eventually, in
one of the set piece speeches, Turki Al-Rasheed set out the less
well-received political aspects of food security.

Setting the scene for the web of issues surrounding food security,
Intithar Hussein from the Islamic Development Bank outlined what the
bank sees is a key area of concern – food security as a continuing
world crisis, especially among IDB members.

“One in six human beings is suffering from food insecurity and
under-nourishment,” he told the conference. Climate change, and
financial crises have deepened its effect leading to political and
social crises. Hussein said that these people were largely in countries
that depend on imports for their food needs, and fragile states where
markets do not function and where the urban poor depend on cash for
every aspect of their lives. This particularly applies to dwellers in
sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who spend more than half their income on
food.

The last few years has seen poor people selling assets simply to
survive and this, he said, has slowed already slow development.
Although food prices have dropped from the 2008 peak, they are still
higher than the pre-crises levels.

Increased cost of production, global food reserves, climatic
variability and biofuel production have had serious effects on the
supply side. Most importantly, under investment in agricultural
infrastructure and strain on water resources has played a major role in
the crisis.

“The conditions that caused the crisis remains,” he said. There is a
risk that they may trigger another unless adequate action is taken.

Hussein said that the agricultural industry offers great
opportunities with new agricultural technology, expanding markets and
enlightened policy that would lead to food security and profitable food
businesses. However, food security needed integrated systems at the
regional and local levels that were resistant to shock and took account
of development in related areas of technology and markets.

Sami Baroum, MD of the Savola Group, led the delegates through the
intricacies of the logistical relationships between food producers,
traders and processors, emphasizing that the connection between all
three areas in the agricultural industry is mutually beneficial.

“Logistics will become more critical as the volume of cross border
volumes and urbanization increases,” he said, noting that food security
is not synonymous with national and local production, opening the door
for the need of a more realistic view of the interdependence of nations
in the production and supply of food. He contended that it is essential
to establish broader international ties and adopt regional scale
logistics to link global markets. Most of all, the food industry should
use its particular skills to partner governments to manage strategic
food reserves, the effects of seasonality, demand and deployment.

Yataka Kase, president and CEO of the Sojit Corporation,
demonstrated that few countries are entirely self sufficient in food
production and therefore total food security. He noted Japan produced
only 40 percent of its requirements, the UK about 75 percent and the US
and France between 120 and 130 percent. He concurred that food
distribution systems needed improvement and that governments should
stockpile grain reserves and improve self-sufficiency where possible.

It was Al-Rasheed, chairman of Golden Grass, who made the telling
point that food scarcity could be seen as “the political aspect of
agricultural development. Agriculture is one of the most effective
tools to promote growth and alleviate poverty.”

Inevitably, as food is a commodity, albeit one that is essential to
life, supply or withdrawal takes on a political aspect when scaled up.
He gave one example of the neglect of agricultural development – he
said that in 1980, 25 percent of loans from the IDB were for
agricultural development.

“In 2000 – would anybody like to take a guess? It was 10 percent.”

He noted that “food security may emerge as one of the key issues of
the 21st century.” He followed this by saying that water scarcity in
Saudi Arabia was one of the limiting factors of food production. In
2007, water consumption was 23 billion cubic meters of which 87.5
percent was used for agriculture. The world average was 71 percent.

He said that to legislate to stop wheat production for farmers who
had invested many millions of riyals in their water and farm equipment
and require that they stop growing wheat and cause farmers to grow
alfalfa and summer crops that use anything up to 16 times more water is
easy. The process, however, produces some unfortunate results.

Referring to government bureaucrats who could prevent farmers
growing at the stroke of a pen, he said: “You decided to make the
surgery but you don’t want to pay the price after the surgery.”

The JEF enters its last day Tuesday with sessions on health, science and technology and education.


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