Despite expanded food trade, the last decade has seen effectively no progress in reducing the number of hungry people in the world. Sharply rising food prices are lifting the 850 million malnourished towards a billion. Yet there is no shortage of food in the world.
On this strange paradox the main contribution from Australia - a major food exporter - has been to back more monoculture cash cropping and attack all forms of agricultural protection. Silence might have been more sensitive.
The immediate cause of the food crisis is rising prices, but deeper structural forces are at work: biofuels, agricultural liberalisation, and arguments over the means by which countries achieve food security.
There was no consensus on these deeper issues at the recent food summit in Rome. Powerful interests drive the debates.
Food price rises, now at a 30-year high, were especially strong in seed oils, grains and dairy. The big food exporters (including Australia) are not unhappy about this, but millions of poor and marginalised people have been hard hit.
Longer term pressures behind the price rises are the limits of new arable land, climate change and the demand for richer diets in the wealthier economies. The immediate causes are the rising price of oil, affecting fertiliser and transport, and competition for land from the biofuel industry.
Head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, hit out at the diversion of 100 million tonnes of cereals from human food into biofuels - food for cars.
Jean Ziegler, the UN’s food security expert, calls biofuels a “crime against humanity”, and proposed a moratorium on their production. He makes the graphic point that the 230kg of corn that would feed a child for a whole year is being used to produce just 50 litres of ethanol - one car tank full.
The Rome Summit papers say there is “growing international consensus” that biofuels have “contributed significantly” to the current food price rises, but countries such as the US and Brazil still have big stakes in this lucrative industry.
Agricultural liberalisation - the idea of a “free market” in food - is a deep rooted debate. Australia was one of the main advocates of placing an Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) in the agreements of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Australian agribusiness has long sought new markets, especially in the US and Europe.
Yet the AOA was a key factor in the breakdown of WTO talks in 2006.
Lower tariffs and reduced export subsidies had reduced food import bills, but cheap grain had damaged domestic production. Farmers would not plant for the next season while cheap grain was around. Yet local production is always a “buffer” in case of a disruption to trade.
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