Concern chief greets food talks 'first' at G8

Sat, May 19, 2012, 01:00

THE G8 summit of the world’s leading economic powers has allotted up to two hours at Camp David today to discuss food security and nutrition.

“It is definitely a first, definitely unprecedented,” said Tom Arnold, the chief executive of Concern Worldwide, who is addressing three high-level meetings on the subject in connection with the summit.

“Food security is a moral imperative, an economic imperative, and it is a security imperative,” President Barack Obama told more than 500 leaders from government, businesses and international organisations at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security in Washington yesterday.

“After decades in which agriculture and nutrition didn’t always get the attention they deserved, we put the fight against global hunger where it should be . . . at the forefront of global development,” Mr Obama added.

The US leader announced the establishment of a partnership called the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, whose goal is to lift 50 million Africans out of extreme poverty in the next decade. He said G8 nations will help to launch the effort, but alluded to the fact that much of the $22 billion that was pledged at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, three summers ago had not yet materialised. “We must do what we say; no empty promises,” Mr Obama warned.

The new alliance will also mobilise private capital, the president said. Forty-five companies ranging from African co-operatives to international corporations have already pledged more than $3 billion. Mr Obama promised to speed up innovation, for example in seeds and storage, to increase food production in Africa. The mobile telephone revolution would be exploited to provide data on meteorology and market prices to farmers.

The president emphasised that “we’re going to keep focusing on nutrition, especially for younger children”. Mr Arnold addressed the symposium on that very topic, two hours before Mr Obama spoke.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon last month appointed Mr Arnold, who is also chair of the Irish Times Trust, and former president Mary Robinson to the lead group for the UN’s Scaling Up Nutrition initiative, which focuses on nutrition during the 1,000 days from conception through the first two years of life.

“A conjunction of events” brought about yesterday’s announcement by Mr Obama and the emphasis on food security at the G8 summit, Mr Arnold said.

In January 2008, the world’s leading medical journal, the Lancet, published five articles on maternal and child nutrition. “They spelled out the cost of poor nutrition – the number of children who die, and the stunting among those who don’t,” Mr Arnold explained.

The problem can largely be remedied by simple interventions such as breast-feeding, taking folic acid during pregnancy and vitamin supplements, Mr Arnold continued. “Inadequate nutrition during the first two years of life means brains are not as well developed, body size is affected. Smaller girls have smaller babies. Breaking the vicious circle is what is at issue here.” Concern launched its own “1,000 Days” campaign in Ireland this week, with a speech by Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, who reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the issue.

A spike in food prices, which led to food riots in more than 30 countries in 2008, “really put food back on the agenda”, Mr Arnold said. At the G8 summit in Japan that year, the EU pledged €1 billion, followed by the G8’s promise at L’Aquila the following year “to free humankind from hunger”.

Mr Arnold gives high marks to the Obama administration, particularly secretary of state Hillary Clinton. “There’s a genuine sense they really want to leave a mark here . . . The real challenge is to translate these expressions of intent into actual results. We are at the beginning of that; we’re not at the end.”