DAVOS, Switzerland — While the world focuses on financial crises, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and other leaders say those priorities won't matter unless people have one basic thing: Enough food to eat.
Business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum agreed Thursday that solving the problem isn't just about producing more food — it means getting these staples into hungry mouths.
"The world can feed itself. Africa can feed itself. The problem is we have vulnerable populations who do not have access" to the food, said Okonjo-Iweala. She spoke at at an annual gathering of global VIPs in the Davos resort in the Swiss Alps, where hunger seemed a far-away prospect.
Unilever CEO Paul Polman said helping small farmers succeed — and spending tens of billions of dollars a year more on production — is the best way to feed the world's poor.
Stefan Lippe, CEO of global reinsurer Swiss Re, said extreme weather, credit and subsidies are other factors. "You need access, but you also need access to financial markets," he said.
In Brazil, the government has been reaching out to the poor and hungry who often remain invisible and applying local solutions on a national level, said the head of the U.N. food agency, Jose Graziano da Silva, a Brazilian former food security minister.
Among the things Brazil has been doing is creating a social safety net with the world's biggest program of giving money directly to poor households, he said. The $8 billion national effort includes the much-lauded Zero Hunger social programs that over the past eight years has helped lift at least 19 million Brazilians out of poverty.
Brazil's effort also attempts to change people's behavior by requiring that parents keep their children in school or get medical checkups to receive aid. Graziano has said one of his main priorities since becoming director-general of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome on Jan. 1 was to decentralize FAO's work to the regional and subregional levels, since that's where hunger is fought.
The U.N. food organization estimates there are at least 925 million undernourished people in the world — almost one in seven.
"We can feed the whole population — 7 billion — that we have," said Graziano.
"The problem is not the supply side," he said. "The problem is the access — they don't have the money to buy it or they don't have the water and land they need if they are subsistence farmers."
Malnourished people, particularly kids, are more susceptible to dying from malaria and other diseases in Africa, said Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose philanthropy has mainly focused on promoting health.
"For the billion-plus who don't get enough food, the effects are quite dramatic," he said. "I'm fairly optimistic that this is coming back on the agenda."