Walker's World: G8's thin food summit
Washington, April 20, 2009
The good news is that the world's key agricultural ministers convened this weekend for the first time under the auspices of the G8 summit process. The bad news is that they addressed everything except the three large elephants in the room.
Two of these elephants are familiar; the massive and market-distorting $300 billion a year spent on food subsidies and protection by the United States, Europe and Japan and the botched way that Europe and the United States are running their biofuels programs.
As Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, puts it, "A fourth of this year's U.S. grain harvest, enough to feed 125 million Americans, or half a billion Indians at current consumption levels, will go to fuel cars. Yet even if the entire U.S. grain harvest were diverted into making ethanol, it would meet at most 18 percent of U.S. automotive fuel needs."
The third elephant is new: the way that countries fearing food shortages are making bilateral deals with poorer countries to buy or lease farmland to provide guaranteed crops for their own citizens.
China is negotiating with Myanmar, Russia and Uganda for exclusive use of large tracts of farmland. Saudi Arabia is seeking deals with Egypt, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine. Indian companies have negotiated leases with Paraguay and Uruguay. South Korea is bidding for land in Madagascar and Sudan. And Libya is leasing 250,000 acres from Ukraine in a barter deal in return for oil.
It makes a kind of sense. Usually, this kind of leasing deal involves the outside country bringing in state-of-the-art irrigation and farming techniques to maximize yields. And these skills and technologies can then (in principle) be made more available to the host country. But it raises some big questions.
First, what happens to the original owners of the land in the developing country? Are they given compensating land elsewhere? And if in a particular year the outside country does not need all its crop, will it sell it locally, probably driving down prices and thus hurting local farmers?
And in a time of food shortages like last summer, how does the outside country plan to get its private crop out of the hungry country, through country roads and into ports and passing hundreds of thousands of angry and possibly starving locals? What sort of security, with what sort of weapons and under what orders, will guard those food convoys?
But those questions, which are becoming urgent now that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warns that we could be heading for another summer of food shortages and price rises, were not on the G8 agenda.
Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia, host of the agricultural ministers' meeting, said they all agreed "something must be done" to guarantee food supplies for a hungry world threatened by soaring prices and speculation. But he signaled there would be no immediate decisions and no commitment to new levels of food aid.
"If you ask me whether we will come up with a package for agriculture at the end? No, it is not our competence," he told reporters.
This meeting of farm ministers is supposed to agree on a policy document that will be presented to the G8 summit of heads of government in July. The draft of documents proposes "immediate interventions," which sounds both dramatic and urgent but instead refers to long-term policy measures that seek to double the world's agriculture production by 2050.
The G8 countries are the traditional industrial powers: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Canada and Russia. They convened in Treviso, Italy, with delegates from the so-called emerging economies of Brazil, India, Mexico and China, as well as those from Argentina, Egypt and Mexico.
Initial plans for lavish wine tastings, gala dinners and gastronomic tours were scaled down to "working dinners" when it was pointed out that a meeting devoted to a burgeoning world food crisis might not be best symbolized by a gourmet weekend for the ministers.
Instead, they talked of rising populations and dwindling amounts of arable land. They discussed water shortages and the erosion of topsoil. They talked of the growing challenge of climate change threatening to cut harvests, with new estimates by William Cline of the Peterson Institute for International Economics suggesting that global warming could cut India's crop yields by 30 percent.
"Climate change is expected to compound existing food insecurity in some nations, including many of the most vulnerable, due to variations in temperature, increased frequency of extreme weather like drought, floods and storms and the spread of pests and diseases to new geographic areas," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Vilsack, a former governor of the corn-growing state of Iowa, made no reference to U.S. biofuels subsidies in his remarks at the meetings. He did touch on the thorny issue of food subsidies, but he did so in a way that sidelined the issue to be dealt with elsewhere in global trade talks.
"We also must enhance efficiencies in the global market," Vilsack said. "A successful conclusion to the World Trade Organization's Doha Development Round would reduce and eliminate tariffs and other barriers, as well as market-distorting subsidies for agricultural goods."
So at least one of the elephants got its trunk into the room.
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