Food Security must be a 21st Century Priority

Date: Monday, October 17, 2011

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, keynote address at the ceremony to commemorate World Food Day Rome, Italy, 17 October, 2011.

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I don't think anyone here will argue with me when I say that food security must be a 21st century priority. Today more than 900 million people are hungry; that's nearly one in seven people worldwide. And due to rising food prices, more and more people are falling into extreme poverty.

The famine and unfolding events in the Horn of Africa present a stark and tragic reminder of the need for food security. And the television commercials for food banks in the United States remind us that hunger is not limited to one part of the world, it affects all countries.

The theme of this year's World Food Day rightly focuses on food prices, as we look for ways to move from crisis to stability.

Now we know that there are many factors for the rising food prices and food insecurity. These include rising incomes in emerging economies leading to changes in consumption patterns, and with that more meat, dairy products and feed grain are needed. There is population growth with 78 million new mouths to feed every year; the global population is soon to reach 7 billion and is expected to climb to 9 billion in the next 40 years. There is also bio-fuel production with its rising pressure on land and natural resources.

All this is compounded by the global slowdown of the economy, commodity price volatility, the trade in food commodity futures, and distortive agricultural and trade policies. And let us not forget that climate change—with increasing storms, floods and droughts, is adding to the volatility of food prices and the challenge and urgency to find solutions for food security.

Recognizing the major threat that swings in food prices pose to the world's poorest countries and people, the international community, led by the G20, moved in 2011 to find ways of managing this volatility.

The report produced for the G20 says it clearly: The overarching goal of actions with respect to food price volatility should be to ensure that the most vulnerable people have access to sufficient, nutritious food. As the report states: All policy interventions should have as their ultimate aim, the elimination of all food insecurity, whatever its cause.

To put it simply, 925 million hungry people is 925 million too many.

Today I submit to you that one cause of food insecurity is the poverty and discrimination faced by women and girls, including women farmers. And one sure way to advance food security and end hunger is to empower women and unleash their untapped potential to increase agricultural production.

We just commemorated the International Day of Rural Women and in his message the UN Secretary-General made this point well. He said that study after study has demonstrated that rural women are pivotal to addressing hunger, malnutrition and poverty. They are the farmers and nurturers, the entrepreneurs and educators, the healers and helpers who can contribute to food security and economic growth in the world's most remote and vulnerable settings.

We know that social safety nets, such as cash transfers, are needed to provide protection against the turmoil in food markets and keep people from going hungry. We know that agricultural production needs to grow significantly to feed growing populations. And we know that investing in developing countries' agricultural sectors is a must for sustainable increases in productivity, healthy markets, increased resilience to international price spikes and improved food security.

Investments in infrastructure, extension services, education, as well as in research and development increase food supply in developing countries. These investments improve the functioning of local agricultural markets, resulting in less volatile prices. In this way, markets can work for the poor people who bear the burden of food price volatility.

And many of the poor people who bear the burden of rising food prices are women and adolescent girls. They are struggling to feed their families and we hear reports that they are skipping meals themselves to make sure that their children do not go hungry.

As our colleagues in the World Food Programme can testify from having delivered food to refugees and other vulnerable people worldwide, women put their children first. And it is time to put women first because women, and the young girls who will grow up to become women, are the secret weapon in fighting hunger.

All over the world, women are the thread that holds the fabric of society together. They work hard to raise their children and provide food and comfort for their families and communities.

In fact, women produce between 60 and 80 per cent of the food in most developing countries and are responsible for nearly half of the world's food production, yet their key role as food producers and providers, and their critical contribution to household food security, is only recently becoming recognized.

And this brings me to my main point.

Since women are on the front lines of food security, we need to put their needs and rights at the forefront of trade and agricultural policies and investments to move from crisis to stability.

If you travel to some parts of Africa, you will see that most smallholder farmers are women. The men have gone to look for work in the towns and cities, leaving the women to tend the crops. And this rural to urban migration is not just happening in Africa, it is taking place around the world.

In some parts of Africa women make up 70 percent of agricultural workers, worldwide women comprise 43 percent of the agricultural workforce.

Yet women seldom own the land they operate, they have smaller plots of land than men, and they have less access to resources such as loans, the latest seed varieties and get the highest yield from the land they farm.

The discrimination faced by women is not only an affront to justice and equality; it is holding back agricultural production.

And this comes at a time when stability in the food market depends on increased investment in agriculture, particularly in developing countries, where 98 percent of the hungry live and where food production needs to double by 2050 to feed growing populations.

If the world is to meet the challenge of feeding people today and the 9 billion people by 2050, we must invest in girls and women, who are key to food security.

As nations rediscover the importance of investing in their agricultural sectors, we have a tremendous opportunity to acknowledge women's contributions and ensure their equal rights and equal access to resources, assets and opportunities. Now is the time to make sure that women are at the tables where decisions are made, where policies are crafted and funds are disbursed.

This case is bolstered by the good work of the Food and Agriculture Organization. FAO tells us that giving women the same access to resources such as finance could result in significant gains: women's agricultural yields could increase by 20 to 40 percent, raising national yields by up to 4 percent, and there would be between 100 million and 150 million fewer hungry people.

So the point I am making is that empowering women and girls is key to progress in development, food security and improved nutrition.

Today we know so much more than we've known before. We know that solutions to food security are not just technical; they are just as much social. We know the critical role of women in food production and securing nutrition for family members; the crucial importance of early childhood nutrition for child development and ultimately the development of the nation.

And we know that we need to empower women and protect their rights - to increase their access to technology, land and employment - if we are going to improve food security, agricultural productivity and benefit the whole community. And policies and public action must be accompanied by gender sensitive mechanisms for accountability.

And, last but not least, we know how we can make these changes happen.

We have seen progress in Central Asia. In Tajikistan in 2002 only 1 in 50 women had access to land - but by 2008 1 in 7 farms were registered to women. This growth happened when farmers were provided with the right advice and support in an initiative supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and UN Women.

In Kyrgyzstan courts of elders have proven to be critical allies in the effort to secure women's right to land. Local organizations have provided legal aid and assistance on land issues to thousands of women, including direct legal representation. In 2008, religious leaders requested a review of the basic principles of Islamic Sharia law regulating property rights. Extensive training programmes for religious leaders are now planned across the country.

And we know who can help us on the ground - civil society organizations and religious organizations, institutes of education, the media, trade unions and national government can be our allies in delivering this progress.

In Brazil issuing identification cards allowed many rural women to get the loans they needed to increase their harvests. Between 2003 and 2006 the National Family Farming Programme more than doubled the proportion of loans to rural women to over $100 million US dollars. And we see innovative and ground-breaking loan work being done by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD.

In India, the Government is sponsoring a UN Women's partnership with the Barefoot College of India to train grandmothers initially from Liberia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, to be followed by more countries, to be solar panel engineers. The effort brings in basic light right down to the level of basic household where they take ownership and control over that technology. The founder Roy believes in investing in women, older women, mature women, gutsy women who have roots in the village and training them.

The results are electrifying. When women are empowered and can earn an income, hunger and poverty go down and lives improve, and so does the well-being of families and communities.

Looking forward, we must be mindful that greater results will only come from our combined efforts in the global community. UN Women looks forward to strengthened collaboration with all of you here today and other partners around the world to improve the lives of women and girls so they can reach their full potential.

Prioritizing women's empowerment and equality is not more work for all of us as we strive to end extreme poverty and hunger. It is needed to achieve food security more effectively and comprehensively, and move from crisis to stability.

This is what we owe to the 925 million people who will go to sleep hungry tonight and the mothers who desperately want their children to survive.

I thank you.