Analysis: The global food crisis

Al Jazeera speaks to key experts as the UN hosts a food crisis summit.

Inside story - food crisis summit

Soaring food prices are threatening to push millions of people into poverty [AFP]

The United Nations is hosting a three-day food summit in Rome where more than 40 world leaders are discussing a global crisis that is pushing 100 million people into hunger, provoking food riots, and threatening world stability.

Price rises are being blamed on high oil prices, expanding populations, flawed trade policies, market speculation, growth in biofuels production, changing diets, urbanisation and extreme weather.

Al Jazeera speaks to key individuals about the crisis, potential solutions, and perspectives on the current international rules on agriculture.

Vandana Shiva, ecologist, farmer and author

“We could solve the climate problem and the food problem tomorrow with investments, but not the level of investment the World Bank is talking about, [but] by supporting ecological agriculture supporting local economies.


“Food riots and food wars are not just taking place in the streets of Egypt and in Mexico, they are taking place in the corridors of the FAO [Food and Agricultre Organisation of the UN].


“On one hand, the world’s movements and concerned communities are asking for ways in which we will address food scarcity by growing more food sustainably with less fossil fuel inputs and more fair systems of distribution and trade.


“On the other hand, the very people who have shaped industrial chemical agriculture and created food scarcity in local economies – and the very people who shaped the agreement on agriculture with the WTO [World Trade Organisation] – are saying ‘let there be more investment but let it be turned into a subsidy for us, so we can spread the second green revolution in Africa, and so we can get the subsidies for hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers and we get new subsidies for supplying the poor world with food.'”


“What we need is to make local economies robust.


Global food crisis facts

Global food prices force about 100 million people into hunger

High food prices are pushing 30 million Africans into poverty

About 850 million people are suffering from chronic hunger worldwide

Food prices have hit the highest levels in real terms in 30 years

Price of rice has gone up by 75 per cent globally

Global food prices rose by 43 per cent in 2007 alone

The US has diverted about 40 million tons of maize to produce ethanol

An acre of maize produces only 50 gallons of gasoline

EU plans to get 10 per cent of auto fuel from Bio-energy by 2020

“The food war in the corridors must now become open and we must recognise the greed and monopolies of agro-business as the real reason people starve in the world.


“Farmers commit suicide and women and children go hungry, but people are capable of producing food.


“Let the governments and international trade rules stop the obstruction and let the unfair subsidies go into agro-business. Stop the unfair markets.


“[US] President [George] Bush made a statement a few weeks ago, [and] the biofuel industry put huge adverts in the IHT [International Herald and Tribune] to say it was the Asians, Indians eating more, rather than biofuel diversion.


“The first point is that India’s consumption increased by two per cent over the last year in cereals. US consumption of cereals increased 12 per cent and most of that was for biofuel. So if you are looking at pressure, it is coming quite clearly from the US for biofuel, not from countries like India.


“The real cause of the rise in food prices is the forced integration of local economies into an international economy controlled by speculative monopolies. If five grain giants control food trade, it does not matter how much food there is in the world, they will make their super profits.


“A second very big reason for the decline in food availability at the local level is a very false model of increasing agriculture production. It depends on the name of the green revolution … it goes by the name of industrial agriculture.


“Unfortunately, the World Bank’s package of $1bn for increasing investment in the south is in the form of new seeds, largely non-renewable, and chemical fertilisers. This package is a disaster for poor countries.


“First, the farmers go into debt. They have to sell their food and can not buy it back at the price at which they sold it.


“Secondly, climate change has been caused 25 per cent by industrial agriculture. Add another 10 per cent because of rising fuel prices and you’re talking about 35 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions coming from a non-sustainable farming system.


“We could solve the climate problem and the food problem with investments, but not the level of investments the World Bank is talking about by supporting ecological agriculture. It is about supporting local economies, and the most important point is a valid international assessment.”

Alexander Sarris, director of trade and market for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)

“There is a big problem with the government of developing countries. Certainly not for some of the countries in Asia, but with the countries that have not made agriculture a top priority for investment and for poverty reduction.”


“Despite that rhetoric, this is one of the main obstacles for re-launching agriculture and I think both the FAO as well as the World Bank are calling for a new strategy to put agriculture first or at the forefront.


In video

Al Jazeera goes shopping with struggling families

‘Feeding the Family’

“The position of the FAO [is] that the major solution to the problem of high and soaring food prices is definitely to increase world food production … in developing countries because they have already achieved very high productivity levels but they are lagging very much behind.


“The technology is already there for them to increase production and achieve better levels of self sufficiency.


“A lot of people blame the international system, and there is a lot to be blamed there, but the largest markets for food products are going to be the developing countries themselves. So the domestic markets in many developing countries in the regional markets offer tremendous possibilities for the output of increased production when that is forthcoming and that can be managed by regional agreements and various other trade agreements among the developing countries themselves in addition to the WTO [World Trade Organisation].


“Prices are soaring because of several factors that seem to be coming together simultaneously. On one hand, we have increased demand from countries whose income is increasing quite fast, mostly countries in emerging countries like China, India, Brazil and others.


“Second, we have some of the protection that is being diverted to biofuels but that is because of the mandates imposed by many developed countries to deal with the climate change issues.


“Every little disturbance leads to excessive reaction, like the recent reaction in the rice markets, so the most important structural change that has affected food markets in the last few years is basically the relationship between the petroleum markets and the food markets. 


“The reason they are inter-related is because of the high petrol prices which make the production of biofuels from agricultural food stocks way competitive  – this diverts resources from production of food to production of ethanol.”

Sylvia Borren, co-chair of Global Call to Action Against Poverty

“What is interesting to think about is how to change the situation – $15m is needed to make sure that women and families can actually buy food.


“That sounds like a lot of money and the World Bank is not putting up that $15m. It’s much less at the moment. When you consider how the American reserve bank and the European bank have just, in the last six months, put up 70 times that amount to stabilise the financial structure of the world, then it’s an amazing thought that this money cannot be available straight away for the people who are now suffering from hunger.


Global food crisis facts

Global rice stocks have halved since hitting a record high in 2001 while demand is continuing to rise

Financial speculators, rising populations, floods, droughts, increased demand from developing countries, and removing crops from the food chain to produce biofuels have been cited as factors

Price rises have led producing nations to enforce export restrictions, further putting the squeeze on supply, especially in countries relying on imports

“Citizens of the world … are demanding the countries of the West stop the fair trade and the dumping of agriculture.


“They are demanding that investments are made in local agriculture.


“On one hand in the West, we have the problem of obesity and food waste and, on the other hand, we have 100 million people going to bed hungry every night.


“At the moment, the estimates are that 20,000 people, especially women and children are dying daily of hunger.


“The worst thing about this is that it is solvable.


“The immediate support can be given to the people who need cash who need to get food, and a decent work agenda coming from the trade unions who will make sure people will get proper wages.


“We know how to increase and make sustainable agricultural systems, but that means that the 14 leaders we have heard today have to put their actions where their mouth is. They have to be supported by the UN.


“I have been listening to world leaders today saying time and time again the things that NGOs have been saying for the past 20 years. We have been saying that everyone has the right to food. We have been saying that the lack of food is a man-made problem, and that women and children suffer the consequences.


“We have been saying that we need investment in local trade and particularly we have been saying ‘would you please stop the unfair trade rules, would you stop subsidising agriculture products into the developing world which undercuts the production possibility of local farmers?’


“The big question is … can we actually organise the Doha round of trade to make for structural changes in the trade rules and particularly when are we going to invest in the local farmers in developing countries?


“Such a little amount of money is needed to solve these problems.


“[But] the rich countries, the developed countries, are not prepared to stop subsidising their agricultural products and dumping them and undercutting the local farmers in developing countries.”


The interviewees were talking to Al Jazeera’s ‘Inside Story’

Source: Al Jazeera