World hunger is not due to any inability of agriculture to produce enough food, but rather a lack of income for the poor to buy food, a World Bank official says.

"Food insecurity is caused by lack of purchasing power, whether individual, regional, or national," says Carole Brookins, the bank's United States executive director at Washington, D.C., who spoke at the joint annual meeting of CropLife America and the California Plant Health Association at Palm Desert, Calif.

"Too many in today's world take food for granted," she says. "But we're constantly dealing with the question of how we're going to provide global food security." A key reason for the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union was that "communism couldn't provide the food the people needed."

Brookins, who has held several high-level government posts dealing with international issues, says many of the forces driving the mission toward global food security are coming together right now:

• Globalization and trade liberalization, with their issues of bringing poor people into the marketplace.

• Sweeping technological changes, from molecular biology to information-communications technology, to precision farming.

• Health/nutritional crises — "not just HIV/AIDS, but malaria, waterborne diseases, TB, childhood nutrition, etc."

• Degradation of natural resources and increasing scarcity of water.

• Rapid urbanization, with more and more people moving into cities and accelerating demand for food in very concentrated areas.

• Continued conflicts, with villagers and farmers being shot or otherwise in jeopardy in many parts of the world.

• Climate change — whether agriculture is contributing to global warming. ("Whatever you believe, agriculture is always going through unstable climate periods, and we have to determine whether they're short or long term and how we change and adapt to maximize yields.")

• Dissolution of large state governments, suddenly confronting people with the responsibilities of democracy.

• Changing state monopolies to privatization.

"In trying to achieve global food security, we have a decade of government's built-in rhetoric to deal with," Brookins says. "But now we're entering a decade in which we have to start working on achieving results.

"Governments are like coaches — they have the playbooks and they talk a good game, but it's the business community that puts the players on the field and makes things happen and delivers the goods. The money that's needed for government to help other countries comes from you, from your businesses creating jobs, creating wealth, dealing with regulations, and making things happen through productive investment.

"People in agriculture are Most Valuable Players, the ones who're going to help us reach our millennium development goals, because if we don't raise agricultural productivity, nothing else is going to happen as it should. We're not going to succeed."

Among the millennium development goals:

• Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. "By 2015, we're going to have millions of people whose income is less than $1 a day. Seventy percent of the world's poor live in rural areas, where agriculture is the driver of productivity. We can't just shoot for doubling that to $2 a day — we have to think big, of raising it to $15 a day, or $20, so we can help them to get off unemployment, increase their purchasing power, and do something with their lives."

• Achieve universal primary education. "If kids don't have adequate nutrition, they can't think, they can't learn. If they aren't adequately nourished from birth to three years, their brain development may be set back for a lifetime. We don't have time to lose another generation to rhetoric. We've got to get every child in the world to be able to read, write, and achieve by age 10, so they can become productive members of society and support their families."

• Promote gender equality and empower women, who are increasingly left on the land to run the farms. "We've got to make sure they're adequately nourish, that they have the information they need to better manage resources and improve ag productivity — and it's critical that they be brought into Extension around the world."

• Reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. "The more educated people are, the better off they are, the more they're able to afford health care and better health delivery systems."

• Insure environmental sustainability to increase yields and improve stewardship of the land and natural resources. "You in agriculture are on the cutting edge of this movement."

• Create a global partnership for development. "We have to have an open trading system. We have to address the special needs of the least developed countries. We have to work on reducing agricultural subsidies in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries.

"This is a very sensitive issue, but one of the biggest facing all of us. We all have to be very much engaged in agricultural trade negotiations in order to create a trading system in which everyone can participate and work together to improve the lives of all the people on this planet.

"This will require cooperation between the public and private sector to make the best of new technologies — especially information and communications — available to people around the world. And we'll increasingly need cooperation between agriculture and the pharmaceutical industries to provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries, because many new health products — vaccines, nutrients, etc. — will increasingly come from crop plants."

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.