When I took over as EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, I had to face head on the cold, hard facts: nearly a billion people worldwide experiencing chronic food shortage and many millions of children stunted from malnutrition.
This was happening against the backdrop of widespread rural poverty, especially in fragile countries in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, where vulnerable communities and countries face the uphill battle of climate change, conflict, and natural resources degradation. My dedication to leaving no one behind is nowhere as strong as in this most basic and fundamental human need - to have access to safe and nutritious food.
To succeed in doing so, we had to set an inclusive, sustainable and climate-relevant agenda. And prompt a transformation tailored to local conditions, with smallholder farmers, who often times are guardians of land and our precious biodiversity, fully participating in value chains on fair terms.
It is precisely with this vision in mind that I launched the DeSIRA initiative - Development Smart Innovation through Research in Agriculture - two years ago. Together with a number of EU Member States and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we pledged around €600 million to boost development-smart innovation through agricultural research, capacity development, and more public and private partnerships in the context of climate change. Many of the DeSIRA actions already kicked off this year. Projects vary, for example, from helping national plant breeders in parts of Africa make their crops more resilient to climate change, to supporting agroforestry in Central America, strengthening agro-ecological intensification in Western Africa and improving water management in rice-based cropping systems.
Over the past number of years, I have also continued to stress how important access to land and other resources are, particularly for women. Because, sustainable farming starts with sustainable and secure land tenure and use. In the past years, more than 800,000 women and men obtained secure land tenure, thanks to EU assistance, and more than 4 million hectares of land was put into sustainable use.
Nowadays, we speak a lot about investing in agriculture and agri-businesses as a way to create jobs. That was not the case when I first became EU Commissioner. Under the European External Investment Plan, I endeavoured to set about a shift where innovative financing instruments are part and parcel of our work on sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition. Over the past number of years, a whole range of funds - such as the ABC Fund or the AgriFi Fund - were set up to “de-risk” small investments, thereby creating a better flow of capital to smallholder farmers. So far, approximately €400 million from the EU is expected to leverage about €1.2 billion in total investments in agriculture and agri-business. And even more importantly, this new focus has created a fresh dynamic in terms of jobs, growth and opportunities, especially for rural youth.
I am fully aware that initiatives like innovative financing instruments are very much thinking about the bigger, long-term picture. But in the short-term, this does not mean that we have stopped facing crises.
Food crises often hit the headlines but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Lurking underneath are deeper, complex crises, caused by climate change, extreme weather events, and conflict. Exacerbated by poverty and inequality, these crises strike selectively, hitting the most vulnerable. To tackle this head on in our development cooperation, humanitarian action and peace building work, I set up The Global Network against Food Crises, together with Commissioner Stylianides, the FAO and the WFP. The Network is growing in competency and membership and we are starting to see some of our efforts bear fruit. It is scaling up its work to prevent and fight food crises at national, regional and global level in all areas at risk. We now have a strong system that informs us of looming crises globally and helps to take concrete and coordinated action. In 2017, such coordinated action helped to avert famine in North Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.
One of the most tragic forms of malnutrition is stunting - children not growing enough, with lifelong physical and mental consequences. I worked hard towards delivering on the commitments made by the European Commission in 2012 and 2013 to support partner countries to reduce the number of stunted children under the age of five by at least 7 million by 2025 and to ensure we allocate €3.5 billion between 2014 and 2020 to improve nutrition in partner countries. So far, we have invested €3 billion in nutrition. And according to the latest estimates, around 5 million cases of stunting among children are being averted between 2012 and 2025 across countries prioritising nutrition. And while I am happy with the results achieved, I am still taken aback by the scale of the remaining problem.
A 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides crucial evidence on how land use, land degradation and desertification, climate change and food security are deeply interlinked. But in the past five years we have opened a new chapter in our cooperation on sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition, dealing with all interconnected challenges head on. We have not yet solved global hunger and malnutrition, but I believe that by pursuing and scaling up the initiatives taken, we can make important headway in the years ahead.
Finally, let me finish with a subject very close to my heart. At the start of my mandate, when I pledged to be the most vocal male feminist, I set about putting gender equality front and centre of all the EU’s development programmes and projects. Because, when you empower women, you also empower families, communities and societies! This is all the more important in rural communities, where women are often responsible for feeding their families and communities. In the areas of agriculture, food security and nutrition, the number of EU programmes and projects focusing on women increased from 37% in 2014 to 57% in 2018. And we have started to promote gender transformative approaches to tackle deeply entrenched social norms and behaviours lying at the heart of gender inequality. Not an easy task, but a challenge worth pursuing. We can transform our food systems with the right policies and investment in sustainable and innovative agriculture, but development will only ever be truly sustainable when we invest in women, including rural women. Let’s continue empowering women! This is how we will build more resilient societies and secure the health and wellbeing of present and future generations.
For a summary of my global development work on sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition over the past five years, please view this fiche.