Women farming in Nepal.

"There's nothing quite so deafening as a room full of children who can't cry because they are undernourished."

This was the opening salvo of Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response (ECHO), as she delivered the keynote address at this week's European Development Days (EDD) conference in Brussels.

Billed as Europe's "foremost platform for dialogue, debate and exchange of best practices in development", EDD annually unites representatives from donor agencies, government bodies, the private sector and civil society from across the globe to reflect on European development assistance priorities and feed into them.  This year's topic was 'Sustainable and Inclusive Growth for Human Development.

But within this rubric, by far the lion’s share of attention at the conference went to the topic of food security and how the international development community confronts the stark reality that nearly one billion people around the world – roughly one sixth of the world’s population – is suffering from hunger. (The first day of the conference also fell on World Food Day, which was established in 1980 by the UN General Assembly to strengthen solidarity in the struggle against hunger, malnutrition and poverty.)

The most jaw-dropping statistic I heard at the conference was that if present growth trends continue, we will need to increase production by 70% by 2050 in order to meet the food needs of the world’s population.

Malnutrition is obviously not a new theme for those of us working in the development sector. Indeed, "eradicating extreme poverty and hunger" is the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals laid out by 189 nations in 2000. But while official reports from UN agencies display encouraging projections towards the attainment of this objective in the overall developing world, many countries remain far from reaching this target.

Over the past several years, the spike in global food prices together with the global recession has put food security front and centre on the development agenda. There is a widespread consensus that universal food security is critical, as it underpins political stability, social welfare and economic growth. At the G8 summit in May 2012, world leaders pledged to speed up progress on combating hunger and malnutrition, and British Prime Minister David Cameron  has made food security a focal point for the UK’s bilateral development assistance.

While the panellists at EDD did not provide definitive answers to solving this vexing problem, they did point to a number of ways forward. Some, for example, identified the ‘right to food’ as a tactical goal which - if incorporated into a post-2015 policy agenda - might serve to force transparency and accountability on the part of donors and developing country governments alike to deliver on a promise of reducing food insecurity.

There was also a lot of discussion about things like secure property rights, increased private sector investment in the agricultural sector, incorporating nutrition across the food value chain, and above all, the vital role of reaching women as the principle family member "in charge of" food within most households.

BBC Media Action is well-poised as an organisation to make a contribution to this debate. The consensus at this conference seemed to be that a lot could be achieved in the food security arena without spending too much money, simply by changing behaviours and/or adjusting interventions around the everyday needs and realities of small farmers and consumers in the poorest countries. Media and communication, while not referenced directly, can play a key role in identifying what those needs are and in modifying behaviours.

Next year, in time for the G8 summit in May, BBC Media Action plans to launch a policy briefing which is aimed at exploring the different ways in which media and communication can address threats to food security among rural populations.

It is as huge challenge, to be sure, and we have a powerful role to play in the debate.


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