Rich nations may not have caused the food crisis, but their policies add to the suffering of the poor and starving
Strange things are happening in Rome. The head of the World Bank Robert Zoellick is here talking about the importance of helping small farmers in developing countries (forgetting to mention that his organisation has helped to put a lot of them out of business over the last 20 years) and the world’s leaders and media are suddenly fascinated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
It’s impossible to get a seat in the press room. Frustrated people tap grumpily on BlackBerrys while overwhelmed FAO staff attempt to fix the only photocopier. The last time they had a summit like this no one noticed or cared. This time the eyes of the world are on those gathered across the road from the ruins of ancient Rome.
There’s a food crisis and everybody’s trying to figure out what to do about it.
NGOs like Oxfam, along with international organisations like the FAO, have been talking about the importance of agriculture for development, fair trade and agriculture policies for years but few paid much attention. It doesn’t feel good to say “I told you so”, but it’s a relief that at last people seem to be listening.
It makes me angry though. This didn’t need to happen. Rich countries spent $372bn in 2006 alone to support their agriculture. The EU’s common agricultural policy (Cap) and the US farm bill have contributed to the situation we’re in. If we in rich countries subsidise then dump our food on developing countries while forcing them to open their markets it’s always going to end in tears.
Haiti used to produce most of the rice that its population ate. Then, in 1995, the World Bank and IMF made it open its markets to cheap imports and the country was flooded with cheap rice from the US. Now it import 80% of its rice. When prices rocket, as they’re doing now, and poor people spend 50-80% of their income on food, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what will happen.
Haiti has seen some of the worst food riots in recent months. More than half the population is malnourished while an estimated 830,000 jobs have been lost in recent years, primarily in agriculture.
Haiti’s problems were not caused by bad international trade or agriculture policies, but they have made them worse. If leaders such as Sarkozy, Fukuda, Zapatero and Berlusconi, as well as the US agriculture secretary Ed Shafer and UK international development secretary Douglas Alexander, who have all made speeches here today, are serious about helping developing countries, they must realise that business as usual or vague promises of new money that never comes won’t be not enough.
It’s a complex problem and some of the causes are difficult for politicians to address. More people in China and India can now afford yoghurt and chicken so these goods cost more. Not much we can do about that. Other problems we can change.
Rich countries could get rid of biofuels policies which everyone apart from them and their farm lobbies realise are contributing to food price rises. Subsidies for biofuels worth $11-12bn in 2006 were used to divert 100m tonnes of cereals from human consumption according to FAO officials. The EU says biofuels will help tackle climate change — erratic weather being another important factor in the food crisis — but their own research department admitted in a secret report that most biofuels actually produce more carbon than they save. Rich governments need to spend their money better.
Aid is not the whole answer, but it is an important part of it. A third of maize in Ethiopia rots where it grows because there aren’t the roads or infrastructure to get it to market. The world is growing enough food to feed itself but poor people can’t afford it nor can they get what they grow to where it needs to be. At the moment high food prices are hurting poor people but if the world really wanted to it could help them benefit from higher prices. It’s not a coincidence that Africa’s producing less of it’s own food when aid to agriculture has halved since 1980. Even though anyone who has ever been to a developing country would tell you most poor people are farmers, policymakers seem to have forgotten this.
I’ll never forget an EU Trade official explaining to me that the EU’s proposed free trade deals with many of the world’s poorest countries (known as economic partnership agreements) would allow accountants from Burkina Faso to work in Mali. “Aren’t there more farmers than accountants in Burkina Faso?” I asked him. “Yes,” he answered, “but we don’t have a common accountancy policy”. Privately he said he agreed with me but that the EU wouldn’t give up the Cap come hell or high water.
This week in Rome we’re not quite in hell yet, though high water might not far away as the summer rain soaks everyone queuing to get in. “The international community only reacts when the media beam the distressing spectacle of world suffering into the homes of the wealthy countries”, said the head of the FAO, Jacques Diouf, yesterday morning.
It’s on your computer, radio and TV screens right now. The FAO estimates we need $30bn a year to enable 862 million hungry people to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food and thus the right to life. The US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank have injected more than $1tn into the financial system in the past 6 months to try to avert economic crisis. Speculators have a lot to answer for. When banks take on dodgy mortgages and ask for help, governments respond instantly. When millions of people are needlessly suffering through no fault of their own, too often promises are made and forgotten about. They deserve more. So we wait in Rome to find out if the action we need will come. If not now, when?
We are reaping the whirlwind of past mistakes. It’s going to take more money and humanitarian aid for those suffering now as well as longer-term support, but it’s also going to need a fresh look at trade and agriculture policies that have contributed to the current mess.
This isn’t a natural disaster, it was depressingly predictable and we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The cost of failure is too high.