They struggle to make crops grow in the parched earth. They watch in despair as their seedlings and livestock are washed away by flash floods. They stand quietly in the markets and watch others buy food that has become too expensive for them to afford.
Who are they? They are the hundreds of millions of people who strive – and often fail – to get enough nutritious food each day to lead a healthy life. Hunger is the world’s greatest solvable problem. And solving it is the basis for sustainable development.
It’s a tragic irony that many of them could have better access to food, but don’t. They are smallholder farmers who barely manage to grow enough to feed their families, they are the landless and they are poor urban dwellers that live in communities where plenty of food is available. Their children are often malnourished, facing chronic illness, stunted physical and cognitive growth and reduced life expectancy.
Their experience proves a central truth that must be accepted by all participants in Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development: There can be no sustainable development if billions live in poverty and hunger.
The theme of Rio+20 is “The Future We Want.” For many of the 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty, the future they want could be within their grasp. But this can only be achieved if governments and their citizens, civil society and the private sector, accept that it is the right of every person to be free from hunger, and are willing to act to make this happen. To do this we need to improve people’s access to food in their communities, increase production by 60 per cent by 2050, drastically reduce huge losses and waste of food and manage our natural resources sustainably, so that it flourishes for future generations.
The people who work on the world’s 500 million small farms are the drivers of rural economies and the custodians of a much of our natural resources and agricultural biodiversity. They have enormous potential as entrepreneurs, but lack the means needed to build their businesses, and their own food security and that of others.
When people have access to nutritious food and when they can support themselves and their families, the wider community feels the impact. Productivity increases, incomes rise and access to healthcare and education improves.
Rio+20 is a chance to rise to the challenge. We need to work together to implement policy reforms, create the incentives, invest in research and innovation, build human capacity and expand market opportunities for farmers and their families and small agribusinesses. We need to reform our food production and consumption systems using scarce resources more responsibly. Unless we sustainably manage land, water, fisheries, forests and biodiversity, we cannot achieve long-term agricultural growth.
Sustainable solutions must also be equitable solutions. A large number of smallholder farmers are women. For lasting development in agriculture and food security, women must have the same access as men to resources and the same participation in community decision-making.
Long-term improvement in the lives of millions of people depends on supporting their resilience through climate-smart agriculture and safety net programmes that strengthen their ability to withstand and recover from shocks like extreme weather, market downturns and food price spikes. It also depends on agriculture that provides more diverse foods for healthy diets and on using what we have more wisely by reducing losses and waste in the food supply chain.
As world leaders meet in Rio, we are at a crossroads. In one direction is the path to further environmental degradation and human suffering; in the other direction lies the future we all want. The Rio summit offers a historic opportunity we cannot afford to miss. Achieving healthier food for all and healthier ecosystems can be done. We know how to end hunger and manage the earth’s resources in a more sustainable way. But we need a stronger political will to do it.
We should look to Rio+20 as the beginning of a new process and not the end. The target date for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is within sight. And we must redouble our efforts to meet those goals. Rio must be our stepping stone from the MDGs and their target date of 2015 to a new set of goals. This is our opportunity and we must seize it while we can.
This joint commentary was written by José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP); and Emile A. Frison of Bioversity International