Food crisis warnings fall on stony ground

A seminal moment of the 2008 banking collapse enjoys the improbable association with the British monarch. Attending a function at the London School of Economics, the Queen was overheard to demand “why did no one see the crisis coming?”

If we are to experience a global food crisis in 2011, lack of foresight is less likely to feature on the royal charge sheet. There has been a discernible shift in mood over recent days, especially now that corn and soyabean have joined the jamboree of rising prices.

Those experts who have been reassuring us that the impact will be less serious than in the food crisis of 2007/08 have gone quiet. The dominant voice of last week was the environmentalist, Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington.

Famously optimistic on the prospects of a low carbon technology revolution in America, Brown emerges as a doomsayer on food. “The world is only one poor harvest away from chaos,” he says.

Any world leaders scheduled for an audience with the Queen over coming months will be quaking in their boots. Ruthless royal logic will compel the question: “if you can see a crisis coming so clearly, why are you doing so little about it?”

The tragicomic answer is that we have been unable to achieve consensus on the cause of these uncontrolled spikes in food prices. Proposed solutions are therefore both diverse and divisive.

Worse still, dysfunctional international governance has created a vacuum. Who should lead the fight against world hunger – the UN, the G20, individual governments or perhaps the poor farmers themselves?

The response of the UN in 2007/08 was to call a World Food Summit. But it took too long to organise, the leaders stayed away and worthy ambitions had to be shelved. Food security therefore presents an opportunity for those who favour a shift of power from the UN to the G20 group of major countries.

The new G20 chair, President Sarkozy of France, has already made it known that the issue of food is to be a priority. He is particularly agitated to introduce regulations to dampen the “volatility of commodity prices.”

Last week saw Sarkozy busy in preparing the ground at a Washington meeting with President Obama. This may have been far from straightforward, given that the world’s largest agriculture commodities market is the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, in the President’s back yard.

A more worrying threat to French ambition lies in Obama’s weakened control over Congress. The President has won applause for his commitment to the cause of world agriculture through the US Feed the Future program, together with support for multilateral channels such as the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP). Now he is struggling to gain approval for funds at the promised level.

Cuts in the US may undermine the broader $20 billion commitment to food security promised at the 2009 L’Aquila G8 summit. About 20 of the poorest countries have drawn up national plans of action on food security in anticipation of this financial support.

Tearing up major political commitments with impunity almost before the ink is dry would be much harder if there was solid international consensus on the overall approach of these national plans. Instead, glaring differences are aired with ever greater vehemence.

For example, the influential Oxford academic, Professor Paul Collier, recently published his latest assault on “environmental romantics” who resist the industrial consolidation of tiny farms prevalent throughout Africa. “It is ridiculous that in the face of a mounting food crisis Europe and most of Africa ban the use of genetically modified organisms,” he writes.

GM crops, biofuels, low impact agro-ecology, food sovereignty, speculative trading in commodities, foreign investment in land, trade rules – these are all battlegrounds fought to a standstill. Another crisis will surely demand that ideological differences be set aside.

Last week’s publication of State of the World 2011, the annual prognosis of the Worldwatch Institute, offered welcome relief from the sense of inertia on food issues. Under the title “Innovations that Nourish the Planet”, the report chronicles a formidable array of successful agriculture projects in developing countries.

From indigenous vegetable gardens to innovative community plays, evidence of success of these “environmentally sustainable solutions to reduce global hunger and rural poverty” is piled high. The authors boldly present the virtues of these case studies at a time when “many global hunger and food security initiatives—such as the Obama administration’s Feed the Future program….need guidance.”

Without a fresh spirit of international resolve motivated by the universal right to food security, we will be dependent on the oldest of farmers’ remedies – look to the skies and hope for the best.


this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News