"We must leave Rome with a sense of urgency -- millions of lives depend on it," said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the High Level Conference on World Food Security in Rome this week.
His words underline the fact that the world, for the first time in many decades, is facing a real food emergency. This is not due to some natural catastrophe but is manmade and has many causes.
It is a crisis that has left the bottom billion of the world's population hungry and a further billion under threat as their purchasing power is cut in half by the doubling of food and fuel prices. Fast action is needed not only to overcome the immediate emergency but to put in place the kind of measures that will prevent another such crisis next year or the year after.
Agriculture goes center stage
In an unprecedented move, the need for concerted action has brought together the main Rome-based UN food agencies -- the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme, as well as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.
Over the past two months, a special task force, set by the secretary general, has drawn up a comprehensive Framework for Action. This document, after being endorsed by delegates at the Rome meeting, will not only set out a response to the immediate crisis, but will also provide a framework for the medium and long-term and will put agriculture firmly back on the center stage of development efforts.
The guidelines contained in this document should be high on the agenda of the forthcoming G8 summit in Japan and they should also help focus minds in the drawn-out negotiations on a new trade round, which enter a final phase this summer. It is seen as essential to successfully conclude the Doha round, ironing out some of the contentious issues, such as agricultural subsidies, which have bedeviled the talks and are responsible for many of the market distortions that have contributed to the current emergency.
Linked crises call for concerted action
What has emerged very clearly at this week's Rome summit is a growing awareness that most of the crises the world faces are interconnected. High fuel costs push up food and fertilizer prices. Food security cannot be separated from energy security, and both are linked to global warming.
The need for concerted and collective action to counter global risks is becoming clearer all the time. The challenges to the vital resources on which we all rely -- food, water and energy -- are all inextricably bound together. The way we deal with them will profoundly affect the global economy and will determine our collective security.
The controversy over the use of biofuels will continue long after this meeting is over, but what everyone agrees on is that a trade-off between food and fuel must not be allowed to happen. There seems to be growing support for the idea -- strongly advocated by the German government -- that there needs to be a certification process for the sustainable production of biofuels. To push for a complete ban on biofuel production, as many NGOs are advocating, would only push the price of oil even higher.
Mugabe could not distract
Giving a platform to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, an African leader who has knowingly and willingly allowed his country to be turned from an important food exporter into a food-dependent country where millions are going hungry, was undoubtedly an embarrassing episode at this week's meeting. Indulging an old man in his delusions might have been distasteful to many, the conference was able to take it in stride, and it by no means diverted attention from the main issue.
The situation we face is much too serious for that. Of far greater importance were the many very positive initiatives coming from African leaders, chief among which was the signing on Wednesday of a memorandum aimed at boosting African agriculture. The memorandum formalizes the partnership between the Rome agencies FAO, IFAD, and the WFP and AGRA. The latter, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, is the brainchild of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is also its chairman.
This blueprint for a renewal of African agriculture places particular emphasis on small-scale poor farmers who will be key in overcoming food deficits over the long-term.
Massive effort needed to win the fight
The crisis we are currently facing could and should be seen as an opportunity to refocus attention on agriculture after 25 years of neglect. The Rome meeting has pushed agriculture high up on the international agenda, and it is now up to national governments to readjust their policies.
It is not just a matter of ensuring next year's harvest by getting seeds and fertilizer to poor farmers during the planting season. With the world's population set to hit 9 billion by the year 2050, there is a need to double current agricultural production in the interim.
In the words of World Bank chief Robert Zoellick, we know what to do. It is not rocket science. It is a matter of getting on with the job. It will take a massive concerted effort, but it is a fight we cannot afford to lose.
Susan Killick is a senior editor at DW-RADIO's English service and an expert on Africa.