Last week’s announcement at the Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila, Italy, that the G8 nations will commit $20 billion to help the world’s poorest nations better feed themselves, made with the endorsement and support of Pres. Obama, could bring the kind of change that finally raises the standard of living of poor farmers in Africa and other poor regions.

In any case, the announcement represented a turnabout in agricultural aid to the so-called Third World, Gawain Kripke, policy director for Oxfam International, told Speaking by phone from Italy, Kripke said agricultural aid has declined 75 percent since 1980. "In part it’s understandable," he said. "A lot of aid has been diverted to fight AIDS and improve healthcare. But the G8 seem to have neglected food. By ignoring agriculture, they have been ignoring the most important way that poor people can improve their lives."

He said he did not expect the $20 billion to alter the world’s food economy – that suddenly North America and Europe would be inundated with cheap food commodities grown in Africa and Asia. "These food-insecure countries are big food importers, so the first thing is that increased agricultural production will be used to feed people locally. The impact on export markets would be small," he said. He thinks what might happen instead, if the aid is used properly and wisely, is that with more food locally grown available to feed local populations, the standard of living in these countries will rise – and thus so will demand for better imported foods.

Obama said the U.S. will contribute $3.5 billion to the $20 billion total. With his African ancestry from his father’s side, Obama has a special interest in helping Africa improve food production, and the President traveled to Ghana after the summit to emphasize his concern. "There is no reason Africa should not be self-sufficient when it comes to food," Obama told the summit. South African President Jacob Zuma cautioned that the $20 billion commitment may not prove to be enough, "but at least it begins to do very concrete things." Nigerian Agriculture Minister Abba Ruma said the new pledge was "very commendable in view of the current global recession," but he too cautioned that it must be "disbursed expeditiously. It is only then we will know that the G8 is living up to its commitment and not just making a pledge and going to sleep."

According to the United Nations, the number of malnourished people in the world has risen in the past two years and is expected to top 1.02 billion this year, reversing decades of declines. The global recession is expected to make 103 million more go hungry.

North American and European food companies, including meat and poultry companies, can help by making cash donations, but even better, Kripke said, would be to lend some expertise to nascent food industries in the Third World. "That would be very important," he said. "In the 1960s and ‘70s, there was quite a miraculous improvement in agricultural production in these nations as a result of the Green Revolution – rice and maize production in Asia grew exponentially, for example. It’s not clear that could happen again, though. What these countries need now is to learn how to produce and distribute food efficiently." He said Cargill, ADM and other agribusiness firms are already making substantial investments in such efforts, but that protein foods from livestock remains an area where much more expertise is needed. "This could make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people," he said.