Sunday July 6th 2008
Last month’s world food summit in Rome was overshadowed by the bizarre decision to allow Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and two hundred of his henchmen to break the European Union travel embargo that restricts their movements. It is difficult to see what a regime that has ground its people into abject poverty and starvation; that has banned the work of relief agencies; that has terrorised political opponents; where inflation has spiralled entirely out of control; and where a woman’s life expectancy is now just 33 years of age; can possibly contribute to a solving the world food crisis.
Anger at the sight of Mr.Mugabe buying rosaries at the gifts shops that surround St.Peter’s Square should not obscure a much greater cause for indignation: justifiable anger that the summit concluded without agreement on some of the key food issues that now confront the world.
As the world’s leaders – including Gordon Brown – meet this week in Japan’s Toyako for the G8 Summit – they need to put Rome’s unresolved issues at the very top of their agenda.
Each and every single day 25,000 people die of hunger or hunger-related causes and barely a day now passes without reports of the effects of escalating food shortages – riots in more than 20 countries, children dying of hunger in Ethiopia, famine in North Korea, the collapse of the government in Haiti – harbingers of worse to come. Many other fragile countries will reap the whirlwind of our failure to address a crisis that the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) has called a silent Tsunami affecting every continent, plunging more than 100 million people into hunger, and plunging more countries into violence and instability.
Spiralling high food prices are creating the biggest challenge that WFP has faced in it 45 year history, with millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago now listed as such. Maize and rice have almost doubled in price over the past year.
In the UK higher food prices are causing us all to tighten our belts but in vast swathes of the world – where even before the crisis around 3.5 children die annually of malnutrition – there are no belts to tighten.
The cost of food accounts for half the expenditure of a poor family and, as prices rocket out of control, those families simply cannot keep up. An average family in Bangladesh that has £2-50p a day will spend £1-50p on food. A 50% rise in the cost of basic food requires a further 75p – leaving them with just 25p for all other expenditure.
This shocking situation has been compounded by rising oil prices that have made farming more expensive and by natural disasters such as Cyclone Nargis in Burma, the Sichuan earthquake in China, flooding and droughts and by crop failures in countries like Ethiopia. It has been accentuated further by the rapid industrialisation of vast parts of the world – especially India and China. That in turn has led to demands for more and better food.
The acute nature of the crisis in some parts of the world has already forced WFP to reallocate some of their resources – they have suspended, for instance, their school feeding programme to 450,000 Cambodian children – because they do not have funds to meet all the challenges. WFP representatives in 78 countries around the world are facing similar challenges.
Even in Darfur – where the five year conflict has led to over 300,000 deaths and 2.5 million displaced people – the WFP has received only 17% of the funds required to go on with their feeding programme. In June they cut back their helicopter operations which they say are the life line through which 12,000 relief workers are able to distribute food to remote areas of Sudan.
In the short term the world food crisis will lead to sudden unexpected starvation and therefore to death. In the long term, development programmes will collapse and nutrition losses will damage children for a whole lifetime. The consequences of the 1990s famine in North Korea, for instance, can best be seen in the contrasting stature of North and South Koreans – the average adolescent in North Korea is 18 centimetres shorter than his counterpart in the south. Stunted growth and malnutrition damage bodies and educational attainment.
Failure to take the right decisions on agriculture, bio-fuel production, subsidies, tariffs and trade are they key factors in precipitating this crisis – not, the old bogey of population. Gandhi famously said there is sufficient in this world for people’s needs, but not for their greed, and that remains true.
The President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, has challenged the world community to find the £370 million needed to avert the immediate crisis: “The world can afford this. The poor and hungry cannot” he has said.
Robert Zoellick should speak to his friends at the World Trade Organisation and persuade them to abandon grossly distorted trade policies that have, for instance, forced Japan to import rice while it produces large surpluses (770,000 tons of unwanted and unneeded rice were imported last year alone).
And what else should we do in the longer term?
Food output in many impoverished parts of the world could be doubled or tripled by creating a special fund to support the world’s poorest farmers – helping them obtain seeds, fertilisers and irrigation. Drought resistant crops need to be developed and more research undertaken into ways of bolstering food production.
As well as a “green revolution” we must persuade European and American governments not to use corn to make ethanol, or to displace food crops by oil seed for use as biodeisel. This is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. How many people could be fed by the food used to fill the tank of a four-wheel drive Mitsubishi Shogun? The US is spending $7 billion annually in subsidies for maize-based bio fuels. The diversion of this maize from the international markets accounts for a third of the price increase but it also says something about our priorities that we would rather fill a petrol tank than the stomach of a starving child, rather use food to feed our cars than hungry families.
We should immediately abandon the subsides for bio fuels and we should encourage the World Bank to get on with its plans to provide social safety nets – particularly insurance for poor farmers hit by natural disasters such as drought. This would tide them over until better times come and allow them to stay on the land. Too many feel forced to migrate to the squalor of urban shanty towns.
But the World Bank also needs to atone for the too rapid liberalisation of markets in the developing world. The consequence has been the initial dumping of food by Europe and the US and the consequential reliance of poor nations on cheap imports attended by the abandonment of farming by their own people.
“Back to the Land” is a call that needs to go out all over the developing world.
Next week – if we are to avert a catastrophe – the G8 needs to do more than wring its hands and procrastinate.