Cheap food era is over, Lebel tells Food Conference audience

Posted on Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Alain Therrien (left), MNA for the riding of Sanguinet, and Jean Lebel, Vice President Programs and Partnership Branch at the IDRC at at the opening lecture of the Conference on Global Food Security. / Photo: Owen Egan.

By Jake Brennan

One out of eight humans goes to bed every night hungry. But despite no shortage of obstacles to feeding the planet’s ballooning population, Dr. Jean Lebel, vice-president of programs for the federal government’s International Development and Research Centre (IDRC), calls himself an optimist.

Lebel maintained a can-do attitude as he delivered the opening public lecture, “What goes up must come down: price volatility in the 21st century,” at McGill’s fifth Conference on Global Food Security Tuesday evening in Moyse Hall.

His upbeat tone on feeding the world’s undernourished also permeated the evening’s opening proceedings, largely because of the success of the conference itself. Started in fall of 2008 in the wake of the global commodity price spike in the previous 18 months, the conference has returned every year by popular demand. Unfortunately, explained Chandra Madramootoo, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in his opening remarks Tuesday night, the conference has also continued because “the food crisis has not disappeared.

The theme of each year’s conference mirrors some of the biggest news stories of the past half decade. Starting with a McGill response to the commodity-price spike, it moved through the impacts of the global financial crisis and the 2010 drought on global food security. The role that the resulting commodity price-volatility played in the Arab Spring has led to this year’s theme, “Food Security and Political Instability.”

In conference sessions running through Thursday, 25 international experts ranging from international policy makers and scientists to representatives of NGOs and agricultural producers will tackle not only that topic, but also recurring themes from years past, the main drivers of global food insecurity: climate change producing both floods and water scarcity; high energy prices; biofuels taking food off the table and increasing commodity prices; declining yields; population growth; and the dietary transition to more animal protein in developing countries, particularly India and China.

The list of problems is daunting, and is exacerbated, explained Lebel in his talk, by the inherent unpredictability of the most important factors, such as the weather in a given growing season and policy changes in particular countries. “I would argue,” he said, “that no one, economist or otherwise, really knows with any certainty what will happen in the medium to long term, other than broad strokes, and certainly not price levels or volatility.”

Financial speculation on commodity prices is only increasing volatility, which has been greater in the past five years than in the previous two decades.

But amid all this uncertainty, two conclusions can be pinned down. One, Lebel cited the rising consensus among experts that, because of the many drivers of food insecurity, “the cheap food era is over.” And two, “hungry populations are not happy populations,” as seen in the Arab Spring.

Although the problems at times seem insurmountable, Lebel said the big picture is that we are making progress on feeding the world’s hungry. In 1990, 980 million people were considered undernourished – that is, eating fewer than 800 calories per day. By 2012, that figure has dropped to an estimated 852 million, with significant progress made in Latin America, Southeast and East Asia. What’s more, budgets for research are increasing, and funding bodies, both private and government, are coordinating themselves better.

The IDRC itself is supporting a diverse array of projects from farm to fork to improve food security. In the past three years it has emphasized approaches that are scalable rather than community-based projects limited in scope.

“I am optimistic by nature, but I’m not a fool,” concluded Lebel. “What still keeps me up at night, amid all this development and optimism, is the possibility of missing solutions that can make large-scale change and bring down the rate of the world’s undernourished.”

Learn more about the conference here.

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