News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Summit supports halving of number of hungry by 2015

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 22 June 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1476
  1. Lynn Eaton
  1. London

    Heads of state and other officials from more than 180 nations, meeting in Rome last week, have reiterated their plan to halve the number of the world's hungry from 800 million to 400 million by 2015 in an attempt to raise more funds for the initiative first mooted five years ago.

    But the meeting was dubbed “the summit of the poor” by Dr Jacques Diouf, the director general of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (which organised the summit) because so few Western leaders attended.

    The only two representatives from the 29 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) were Italy's prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, hosting the summit, and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, obliged to attend because Spain holds the European Union's rotating presidency.

    The summit was held only two days after the close of the UN summit in Bali aimed at protecting the environment and reducing world poverty, which attracted bitter criticism from many charities and non-governmental organisations (15 June, p 1411).

    Addressing the poor OECD attendance, Dr Diouf said: “If we exclude certain exceptional national circumstances, we still have a good indicator of the political priority that is given to the tragedy of hunger.”

    He went on to criticise OECD policies: “The small farmers of the developing world are tired of seeing their efforts to improve their productivity undermined by the constant decline in commodity prices brought on by OECD country support to their agricultural sectors, to the tune of $1bn [£0.7bn; €1bn] a day,” said Dr Diouf.

    Despite advances in agriculture and the food industry, which should have given every person in the world adequate nourishment, one in eight people were chronically hungry, with inevitable effects on both health and levels of poverty, the conference heard.

    But attempts to tackle the problem have so far been thwarted. Proposals were first put forward five years ago at an earlier summit in Rome, which determined to cut the number of the world's hungry from 800 million to 400 million persons by 2015.

    The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, said that hunger made people vulnerable to diseases. “It leaves them weak and lethargic, reducing their ability to work and provide for their dependants. The same devastating cycle is repeated from generation to generation and will continue to be, until we take effective action to break it.”

    Unicef's deputy executive director, Kul Gautam, told the summit that a more holistic approach was needed to child malnutrition by tackling poverty and inequality.

    Significant gains could be made in human potential by tapping the power of simple micronutrients, such as iodine, vitamin A, and iron, he said. These were necessary for cognitive development, better school performance, and work productivity.

    Meanwhile Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, New York city, and a UN adviser, said there was “absolutely no excuse” for a further lack of progress in the fight against hunger and poverty.

    “If the rich countries provide important investment to agriculture and rural areas in poor countries, the poor will live, they will grow out of poverty and have a better future. So far, the rich countries have not really made the commitment to resolve the world hunger problem.”

    He said that what was needed were nutrition programmes, school meals, and emergency aid for the people affected by disasters.

    “We need better seeds that are resistant to drought and salinity, and we will need advanced biotechnology.”

    Summit delegates signed up to a treaty supporting the “introduction of tried and tested new technologies including biotechnology” provided that it was “accomplished in a safe manner and adapted to local conditions to help improve agricultural productivity in developing countries.”

    They also reaffirmed their pledge to fight conditions that posed severe health threats, such as HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

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