The United Nations Confronts the World Food Crisis: A New Sense of Urgency

In this article, we explore the multi-stakeholder dialogue on sustainable development at the United Nations.

By Peter Mann, WhyHunger

A multi-stakeholder dialogue on sustainable development at the UN on February 1, 2010 focused on the multiple crises threatening global food security.  Climate change threatens farmers with floods and drought, leading to desertification, land degradation, and water scarcity, with Africa particularly vulnerable.  High and volatile food prices, as well as rising energy prices, put food out of the reach of the poor. The economic recession has meant that less capital is available for investing in agriculture, with fewer jobs for agricultural workers. The consequence is that global hunger has increased  by 130 million in the last two years to one billion, with the majority of the hungry in Sub-Saharan Africa, in such countries as Congo, Chad, Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as in South Asia, notably in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The specter on the horizon is that by 2050 the world’s population will have reached nine billion and ninety percent of the increase will be in Africa and South Asia.

At the same time, imminent crises can concentrate the mind.  There was a sense of urgency that I had not seen before at UN meetings on the food crisis. The focus was on how to implement the food security decisions we have already made and how to scale up the success stories and find the policies to replicate great programs worldwide. One example is urban-rural linkages around food production, where New York and many other cities around the world provide excellent initiatives on regions feeding cities: since Local Authorities are a major group in the multistakeholder dialogues organized by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, their potential for supporting Regions Feeding Cities worldwide is enormous. Information on some of these urban agriculture initiatives is available at Cities Feeding People Program (Canada) and the RUAF Foundation (Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security).

Another paradigm shift at the UN meeting was that small-scale agriculture was put forward as part of the solution, as the potential engine for economic growth and rural development. This is particularly important for Africa, where 62% of the rural poor are smallholder farmers, 25% are landless, and 13% are pastoralists.  It is increasingly clear worldwide that the rural poor who are most food insecure can become food self-reliant if they are given support in terms of land, credit, and appropriate technologies. The International Land Coalition, which took part in the dialogue provided success stories of helping poor rural men and women and their organizations gain and maintain access to productive resources in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other regions.

Faced with these multiple crises, however, it was clear that business as usual is no longer possible.  In terms of the coming water crisis, we were told that we drink between two to five liters per day, our domestic use is between 20 and 500 liters per day, and we use 500 to 3000 liters in food production, with meat diet at the high end and vegetarian at the lower end. We will not be able to continue wasteful irrigation technologies in crop production: see the WhyHunger article, “The World Food Crisis Through A Water Lens” for more information.

A final urgent theme of the discussion was information technology as key to sharing sustainability practices, specifically in regard to agriculture. Helpful sources on this would include the UN Division of Sustainable Development which organized the multistakeholder dialogue, the SARD (Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development) website at, and USDA’s website.