Crisis talks on global food prices

A child carries a tray of bread in Cairo. Photograph: Nasser Nuri/Reuters

World leaders are to meet next week for urgent talks aimed at preventing tens of millions of the world’s poor dying of hunger as a result of soaring food prices.

The summit in Rome is expected to pledge immediate aid to poor countries threatened by malnutrition as well as charting longer-term strategies for improving food production.

Hosted by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, it will hear calls for the establishment of a global food fund, as well as for new international guidelines on the cultivation of biofuels, which some have blamed for diverting land, crops and other resources away from food production.

The urgency of the meeting follows historic spikes in the price of some staple foods. The price of rice has doubled since January this year, while the cost of dairy products, soya beans, wheat and sugar have also seen large increases.

The world’s urban poor have been hit hardest, sending a wave of unrest and instability around the world. Thirty-seven countries have been hit by food riots so far this year, including Cameroon, Niger, Egypt and Haiti.

The Rome summit is the first of a series of high-level meetings aimed at tackling what many leaders now see as a much bigger threat to international stability than terrorism.

A fortnight after the UN meeting, the EU council will focus much of its time on the food crisis. A ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in late June will make a last-ditch attempt in Geneva at agreeing the lowering of international trade barriers, with the aim of cutting food prices and making it easier for farmers in poor countries to export their produce.

Food and climate change will also be the twin top themes of the G8 summit in Japan in early July, and then in September a UN summit will attempt to put the world back on course towards meeting the millennium development goals, agreed eight years ago, one of which was the halving of the number of the world’s hungry.

The price of cereals has dipped slightly in recent weeks after nearly doubling over the course of a year. Production of wheat in particular has begun to respond to price incentives, but the FAO warns that volatility and high prices are likely to remain the norm for the foreseeable future. This year the food import bill for developing countries is expected to rise 40%.

“Food is no longer the cheap commodity that it once was. Rising food prices are bound to worsen the already unacceptable level of food deprivation suffered by 854 million people,” said the FAO’s assistant director general, Hafez Ghanem. “We are facing the risk that the number of hungry will increase by many more millions of people.”

At next week’s summit, Britain will urge emergency funding for seeds and fertilisers for the developing world’s farmers in time for the next planting season.

Gordon Brown is arguing that a WTO deal on trade barriers in Geneva could be critical in bringing food prices under control and supporting farmers in poor countries by providing an export market for their output. He is mounting a diplomatic offensive, lobbying for the US and Europe to do more to cut subsidies to their own farmers, which he says add up to $1bn a day. Brown said farm support schemes in the west cost poor families in developing countries $100bn a year in lost income.

“Failure to reach a deal would hit the poorest hard – literally millions of people will be denied a chance to break out of poverty,” he told the Guardian.

“We have only a matter of weeks to secure agreement. We are one minute to midnight. The US and Indian elections and a new European commission will mean this opportunity will not arise again for years, and we cannot assume we would then pick up where we left off – the same deal may never be on the table again.”

Britain’s support for free trade puts it on a collision course with protectionist sentiment in the US and Europe as well as critics of globalisation, who argue it increases inequality.

Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
Tuesday May 27 2008

Source: The Guardian

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