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“We are moving away from SDG 2 again”

A conversation with Dominik Ziller, Vice President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. IFAD is a specialised United Nations agency based in Rome. In this interview, Ziller talks about the causes of undernutrition and why a world without hunger is currently fading far into the distance again.

Dominik Ziller, Vice President IFAD
Dominik Ziller, Vice President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development

We have been talking about a world without hunger for years. How far away are we still from this goal?

We still have quite a way to go. And the worst part is that we are currently on a path leading us away from achieving SDG 2 again, instead of towards it. There are nine years until 2030, the internationally defined deadline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and we are further behind in achieving “zero hunger” than we are with all of the other SDGs.

Is the coronavirus pandemic the main cause?

That’s not the only reason. The number of people going hungry was decreasing for years until around 2015, despite the growing global population. Since then, the numbers have been going back up slightly. Coronavirus then really exacerbated this trend. In the meantime, close to a third of the global population suffers from food insecurity. In 2014 this figure was around 22%, in 2019 close to 27%, and now it is over 30%. This demonstrates that the pandemic had a catalytic effect on a situation that was already dealing with difficult developments.

So COVID-19 strengthened an existing negative trend. Why did it reverse a few years ago in the first place? What are the reasons for that?

There are various reasons, but one of the most significant is clearly conflicts. We can see that hunger and poverty are concentrated in fragile states. Look at countries in the Sahel region, northern Nigeria or Myanmar. Those are regions with fragile governments, in some of them, religious fundamentalism also plays a role. Conflicts are a major reason why we are not doing a better job combating hunger. And the number of conflicts is currently on the increase.

This triggers a good deal of humanitarian aid, but we are not attacking the root of the problem – is that what you’re saying?

That’s right. It is alarming to see that the share of emergency aid is generally increasing while the funds for longer-term development are stagnating. This surely also has to do with the fact that it is impossible to implement sustainable projects together with experts from outside certain hazardous regions. It would simply be too dangerous.

irrigating a vegetable field
Irrigation of a vegetable field

Can the global community take any kind of international action in conflict situations to combat hunger over the long term?

That indeed is where we need to start in order to ensure that conflicts do not escalate further. This is an area where the international community has room for improvement, for example by doing more and contribute to contain conflicts remotely using satellites.

Besides Coronavirus and conflicts, isn’t climate change an important factor?

It surely is. Conflicts, extreme weather conditions and climate fluctuations as well as economic shocks as caused, for example, by Coronavirus are the three main causes of hunger today.

Which factor is having more of an impact – the climate change or conflicts?

It’s worst when the two come together and reinforce each other. And climate change is already here. We can see that severe weather events are becoming more frequent nearly everywhere in the world as climate fluctuations increase. We can’t argue that away anymore. The people in poorer countries in particular are very hard-hit by climate change: deserts are expanding, soil is drying out. It doesn’t matter if the affected groups are in Africa, Latin America or Asia, everyone is saying that things are changing and this is why our established methods are no longer working.

So what can be done to counter this? What would be particularly effective?

One critical factor is seeds. They often no longer germinate due to higher temperatures or they no longer yield the amounts of produce they used to, especially when aridity is on the rise. So we are working full speed on developing seeds that are more resistant to higher temperatures and can grow with less water. Furthermore, we also have to improve irrigation systems.

woman at a vegetable market
Selling vegetables at a market - an important part in the value chains of food

Hasn’t development cooperation been thinking about improved irrigation methods for decades? What is new about that?

Irrigation has played a role for a long time, you’re right. But the issue is gaining new relevance due to climate change. Secondly – and this approach is new – we have expanded the context to what we call food systems. The primary goal used to be producing the maximum amount of food, the greatest number of calories. And we were successful. But the number of people going hungry increased anyway. Why is that? Because we were concentrating too much on production and did not sufficiently take the other factors into account.

What other factors do you mean?

The entire system – from the field to the consumer. To truly develop an area and combat hunger, we need to establish value chains. Smallholders aren’t enough, even when they increase production. We also need storage and distribution options; we need industries that can further process the produce. In a nutshell, there are a lot of moving parts that need to work together – and they are not.

Why is it so difficult to establish these types of value chains?

The amount of capital is often insufficient. The financing gap for agricultural development is estimated to be around USD 300-350 billion a year. When we see that the total funds for public development cooperation are USD 150 billion it becomes completely clear: it is not enough to establish value chains. Added factors are that farmers lack expertise, land use is undefined, and there is little access to loans.

Don’t national governments need to get involved as well to improve the situation?

Certainly, within their borders, but also in their respective regions. In Africa, only 13% of local products are exported to other African countries – the rest goes overseas. We need more international trade and regional free trade areas here.

a smallholder is digging a ditch on a field
A smallholder is digging a ditch on a field

What is the meaning of smallholders in combating hunger? Or do we need to be concentrating more on industrialised agriculture to accelerate progress here?

In Africa, 80% of agricultural operations are owned by smallholders who also produce 80% of all food. In this respect, they already play a key role in the food supply. Interestingly enough, their yield per hectare is higher on average than industrial farming yields, even though smallholders often have less access to fertiliser and pesticides. This has to do with monocultures and depleted soil. It means that we will not be able to achieve SDG 2 if we do not improve the position of smallholders. At the moment, however, they are only receiving a fraction of the funds that they would need. For example, they currently receive only 1.7% of all funds devoted worldwide to agriculture for adjusting to climate change. I think that’s a real failure.

What could institutions like KfW do to improve their situation?

First and foremost, ensure that more funds are diverted to rural areas. That means leveraging state funds and developing instruments that make it easier for private investors to get on board. KfW has done both in the past, but we all need to increase our efforts if we want to finally abolish hunger from the world.

We currently still have enough food for everyone, but it doesn’t always get where it needs to be for the reasons you discussed. How much longer will this be the case? At what population size will we reach breaking point?

It’s difficult to say. The reality is that we still have a lot of arable land, primarily in Africa, so foreseeable population growth is still manageable.

Does it actually help global food security when I finish everything on my plate – the classic phrase we always used to hear?

The global distribution of food is complex. I think it is much more important that we stop throwing out so much food before it even lands on the plate. We need to change a lot of things when it comes to how we handle food, both here and in developing countries.