Food Security

Can the world buy its way out of hunger?

Ertharin Cousin
Chief Executive Officer and President, Food Systems for the Future
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Food Security

Hunger and malnutrition are among the most persistent obstacles separating the world we want from the one we have today.

The lack of access to nutritious food limits futures, restricts individual economic growth and, worst of all, destroys countless lives each year. So it is a cruel irony that more than half of the world’s poorest people struggling with hunger and malnutrition are, themselves, family farmers.

Too often farmers in the developing world earn a marginal living from land that is greatly susceptible to droughts, floods and other devastating effects of our changing climate. Using basic tools and lacking funds for seeds and fertilizers, many eke out a far smaller and lower-quality harvest than their lands are capable of producing. And with limited resources, poor or non-existent rural infrastructure, and a lack of adequate post-harvest storage facilities, many farmers in developing countries are unable to access even competitive reliable domestic market opportunities that could serve as a major stepping stone out of poverty and hunger.

Solving hunger, increasing self-sufficiency

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is not just the largest humanitarian agency addressing hunger; it is also a major buyer of staple crops, spending more than $1 billion each year on the open market. As we work with vulnerable food insecure communities to build a world with zero hunger, our buying power puts us in a unique position to boost local economies. And that is exactly what we are working to achieve.

Currently, WFP acquires most of the food it buys not from developing countries, but from brokers and large farm aggregators. Over the next three years, we will increase the amount we purchase directly from small-scale family farmers to no less than 10% annually. Creating reliable, accessible market opportunities for smallholders will inject much-needed income into some of the poorest food-insecure rural communities. This will in turn allow hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers to move beyond the challenges of subsistence farming, forever eliminating this cyclical threat to food and nutrition security.

To do this and help farmers access markets beyond WFP, we are building a new procurement platform that brings together a consortium of public and private sector partners – financial institutions, agro partners and other large commodity buyers – who know that food security around the world is central to their success. Together, this consortium will start unlocking opportunities in developing countries and giving millions of family farmers access to reliable markets for the very first time. Over time, this will have a profound impact on chronic hunger.

Partnerships across the value chain are key

Like any venture, farming is full of risks. The farmer has upfront costs and faces erratic weather and the risk of crop loss. Banks and input providers, such as fertilizer sellers, must consider repayment risks. And buyers, who purchase on contract, consider quality, price and reliability risks.

For the majority of poor, small-business family farmers (even when they are working in cooperatives), these risks are too great for most commercial actors across any agricultural value chain to invest in their production activities or pre-commit to buying their harvests. But by creating a consortium that draws on WFP’s past experience supporting family farmers, including successful cooperative development, everyone is far more likely to succeed. This consortium or platform will provide a mechanism for farmers, through strong cooperatives, to receive adequate investment, information and support from seed-to-market delivery. As a result, these farmers can increase crop quality, yield and income. Service and input providers can gain confidence in new, small-scale farm customers. Buyers will also pre-commit to purchase because they should be more confident of the small-business farmers’ ability to deliver quality products on time.

We know this type of transformation is possible because WFP just concluded a five-year pilot project that proves it. Between 2009 and 2013, the Purchase for Progress initiative reached hundreds of thousands of family farmers in 20 developing countries and purchased 400,000 metric tons of high-quality staple crops for use in our programmes. That is enough food to fill about half of Wembley Stadium in London and just a fraction of what could be added to the global marketplace each year if the private sector got more involved.

Our pilot showed great promise in its ability to change lives and provided many learning opportunities for our new procurement platform. One reason for the platform’s success is its ability to identify and reduce risk at every stage, which is why it is so important to create a global alliance with members who are committed to the farmers’ success and their ability to access reliable markets over a multi-year window.

Where we are now

Today, we have completed in-depth studies in several sub-Saharan African countries where we will launch the platform. And we have already started building relationships with potential partners and setting the stage for the platform’s launch later this year.

For the platform to have the best chance of empowering farmers to work and trade their own way out of hunger and poverty, we need patient partners from the private sector who understand that ending hunger is both the right thing to do and a solid business investment. That is why we are calling it the Patient Procurement Platform, and we look forward to bringing partners on board.

Author: Ertharin Cousin is the Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme

Image: A farmer plants onions on a plantation in Tierra Blanca de Cartago, east of San Jose May 15, 2012. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

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Food SecurityAgriculture, Food and Beverage
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