Today, hunger stalks the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, while some parts of the African continent cope with conflict and civil unrest. In other regions — from Bolivia to Pakistan — millions of people are malnourished.
It is against this backdrop that G8 leaders are meeting this week at Camp David. When they gather, we hope that they will take the opportunity to address the global food security crisis which is even wider and deeper than the financial and economic crisis that has been grabbing headlines across the globe.
Italy has long stressed the importance of tackling poverty and hunger and today it is host to the three major U.N .food agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP).
It was in Italy, at the L'Aquila G8 summit in 2009, that food security and agricultural development were finally put back at the top of the international agenda after decades of neglect during which governments and the international community turned their attention away from agriculture. Now we must make sure that they now stay at the top of the agenda, and that the commitments made at L'Aquila are fulfilled.
Investing in agriculture in developing countries is the single most effective method of improving food security for the world's poorest people while also stimulating economic growth. Growth generated by agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors. And there is evidence that every dollar spent on agricultural research produces $9 worth of additional food in developing countries.
More than 95 percent of agricultural holdings in developing countries are less than 10 hectares, and in sub-Saharan Africa about 80 per cent of farmland belongs to, or is cultivated by, smallholders. And experience in developing countries repeatedly shows — in Burkina Faso, China, Ethiopia, India, Thailand, Viet Nam and elsewhere — that smallholders can lead agricultural growth.
In many countries we have seen how successful small and medium-sized farms can transform rural landscapes into vibrant economies, resulting in local demand for locally produced goods and services that also spur non-farm employment in services, agro-processing and small-scale manufacturing. This demand, in turn, leads to a dynamic flow of economic benefits, and the cultivation of new relationships between rural and urban areas.
In order for these small farms to thrive — and to help lead the way to a more successful, profitable agricultural sector — smallholder farmers need better linkages and access to markets, technology and information. They need mechanisms to manage the inherent risks of farming, particularly at a time of exceptionally volatile weather and prices. They need domestic and international investment in rural areas that is sustainable — economically, environmentally and socially. This includes significant improvements in basic infrastructure and services, access to water, and better governance. They need legal empowerment and protection of their rights to the land they farm. And they need support in forming farmers' organizations and co-operatives to give them more bargaining power.
When rural small farmers are connected to markets they can sell more and better-quality food at higher prices, eat a more diversified diet, and improve household food and nutrition security. With increased income they can pay for essential medicines, send their children to school and improve their lives. Gender equality is important here as well: we know that giving women equal access to agricultural resources and inputs is one of the most powerful ways of reducing poverty and hunger.
Recognizing small farmers and their organizations as primary stakeholders in development means more than paying lip service to them in global meetings. Truly acting upon this recognition requires genuine collaboration and inclusive processes, which cannot be an afterthought but need to start from the very design of responsible investments in agriculture.
We have high hopes that this year's G8 meeting will lead to tangible support for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. As the current crisis of hunger and malnutrition in the Sahel shows, we cannot wait. We must act decisively and we must act now. It is our responsibility to make this investment now, for the sake of future generations.
Prof. Andrea Riccardi is Minister for International Cooperation and Integration Policies of the Italian Republic and Dr. Kanayo F. Nwanze is President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), an international financial institution and a specialized UN agency based in Rome.