DEVELOPMENT: 'To The Hungry, God Is Bread'

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By Ernest Corea* in Washington D.C.

Finance Ministers and Central Bankers of the Group of 20 (G20) -- the world's top economic performers -- who met on February 18-19 in Paris, took a low-keyed approach to a potential world food crisis that was the subject of much analysis and agitated comment on the eve of the meeting.

Some commentators even assumed that the main purpose of the ministerial meeting was to discuss what could be an impending food crisis, and work out counter-measures. This was not to be.
The finance ministers are safely back home, but a sense of distress continues to hang over assessments of how high spiking food prices will reach. Remember: it is just three years since the last world food crisis, which was such a disaster for the millions already affected by food insecurity.

Now, the World Bank reports that its global food price index rose by 15 percent between October 2010 and January 2011. That is 29 percent higher than it was a year earlier, and a mere 3 percent below the peak of 2008. The Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) Food Price Index also rose for the seventh consecutive month in January, averaging 231 points, up 3.4 percent from December 2010.

By way of response, World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick issued the grim warning that "global food prices are rising to dangerous levels and threaten tens of millions of poor people around the world."
In a separate response, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon summoned the UN's High Level Task Force on Food Security, for the sixteenth time since it was created in 2008, to review and respond to the facts of the current situation. Subsequently, Task Force Coordinator David Nabarro reported to the the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) that his group is "extremely concerned about the uncertainty around food supplies and changes in food prices."

COMING UP SHORT

G20 finance ministers, however, made only a perfunctory reference to food security and agriculture in their final communiqu�. Perhaps they did not want to court the embarrassment of having to confess that agriculture and, therefore, food security in Africa was impaired because the world's economic powers had failed to fulfil their pledge to support agriculture in that continent.

In 2009, they undertook to provide $22 billion over three years for that necessary and worthwhile enterprise. Up to now, they have come up with only $350 million.

Or perhaps they did not consider these topics to be part of their portfolio -- thus, leaving them aside to be examined and acted on only by G20 ministers of agriculture when they meet later this year. That is a narrow, bureaucratic approach to issues that are universally significant, should attract universal attention, and even cause universal concern.

As Nabarro has pointed out, fluctuating food prices contribute to "food insecurity, poverty, hunger and political instability." Price instability can lead to systemic economic instability. It also can function as a catalyst of social upheaval, when a tipping point has been reached, thus causing political disruption whose effects might be felt not only nationally but regionally as well.

In fact, the recent and continuing political upsurge in the Middle East was initially misinterpreted as solely a case of "bread riots" no different from those that erupted before as a result of rising food prices and a shortfall of supplies in Egypt, among other countries, and subsided fairly quickly. There was much more to the Middle East upsurge than rising prices. Nobody can doubt, however, that the hardship caused by the rising cost of food contributed to anti-government fervour.

MIRED IN POVERTY

The composite account of world food price increases compiled by the World Bank is that wheat prices have doubled between June 2010 and January 2011, the price of maize (corn) has jumped by some 73 percent, while items that contributed to dietary diversity such as vegetables, including beans and yams, have increased as well in parts of Asia and Africa. The prices of edible oils and sugar have also risen.

A bright spot is provided by rice, the staple food of millions, with major production and consumption primarily in Asia. Rice prices, says the World Bank, "have increased at a slower rate than other grains." This is considered by many observers to be an important reason why the world does not face a crisis of 2008 proportions in 2011 -- at any rate, not yet.

Additionally, the prices of maize in Africa have remained stable as a result of improved harvests.

Food prices have not reached 2008 levels, and most state and multi-national agencies appear to possess a greater capacity for emergency action now. But higher prices have already taken their toll: the World Bank estimates that an additional 44 million people in developing countries have been thrown into poverty by rising food prices since June last year.

CRUSHING IMPACT

As always, volatile food prices have their most crushing impact on the poor who generally spend a greater proportion of whatever income they possess on food than do other segments of society. The World Food Programme reports, says Nabarro, that in the poorest households, "many are now paying 15 percent more for food than they did last year."

Some developing countries have found it necessary to expand their "safety nets" to support the most vulnerable among the poor as they deal with the impact of rising prices. Some households have adopted their own corrective measures to confront the problem: buying less food, eating fewer meals, reducing or suspending some expenses (for example, on health), borrowing more to meet their bills and, where opportunities exist, earning at multiple work places.

Such opportunities are limited, however, and the inevitable result is that the poor, already weighed down by their circumstances, are compelled to carry ever-increasing burdens. Not surprisingly, therefore, the UN Task Force informed ECOSOC that "high food prices present a real threat: causing extreme poverty and endangering the lives and livelihoods of nearly one sixth of the world population."

GREATER TASK

International agencies have acquired the experience and the expertise to respond effectively when a food crisis occurs. If the current upward trends persist, turning sooner or later into a full-blown crisis, there will be plenty of hand-wringing and headlines, and there will also be attempts to help those affected.

The much larger and, in fact, more significant task is that of seeking to ensure that such crises are eliminated or, at least rare. What is required is not a series of reactive policies but a reorientation and transformation of agriculture and related practices. This will be a massive undertaking, and the temptation to wallow in excuses that justify inaction will no doubt beckon politicians and officials at national, regional, and international levels.

If they continue to succumb to that temptation, as they have before, the world will lurch from one food crisis to another, causing more hardship and greater upheaval. Perhaps their resolve to take the long-term view and act boldly will be strengthened if only they can live by the principle that combating poverty and its inevitable product, hunger, is a moral imperative. As Gandhi said with his eternal wisdom: "To the hungry, god is bread."

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

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