Wednesday, November 18, 2009

All the Conditions Are Assembled for a New Food Crisis

"All the Conditions Are Assembled for a New Food Crisis."

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Hunger, still and always. And at levels never touched before: Under the impact of the economic crisis, the threshold of a billion people suffering from malnutrition was crossed in 2009. A situation to which the Global Summit on Food Security, taking place in Rome from Monday November 16 to Wednesday November 18 under the aegis of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), will - once again - attempt to bring elements of a response.

United Nations Rapporteur for Food Rights since 2008, Belgian Olivier de Schutter, is alarmed by the situation.

Le Monde: Has the situation improved since the "hunger riots" of 2008?

Olivier de Schutter: No. All the conditions for a new food crisis within a year or two are assembled. The question is not whether it will take place, but when. The structural causes for the 2008 food crisis - an abrupt increase in prices linked to cyclical factors and accelerated by speculation - remain in place. Only a single spark would be enough to relaunch the increase in prices. We have not learned our lessons from the last crisis.

Why are we in this situation?

Since June 2008, food prices have dropped sharply on international markets. But in the local markets of developing countries, food prices remain far higher than they were two or three years ago.

Here's the real issue: Are we going to continue to bet on a small number of big producers or will we buttress the small farmers on whom the majority of developing countries' populations depend?

Even before the 2008 riots, 900 million people suffered from hunger because of the policies effected during the last few decades: government intervention in prices was reduced; the biggest producers were helped to develop export channels and small farmers found themselves marginalized as a result - which produced a massive rural exodus.

Do you feel there has been any change in the attitudes of the elites?

In speeches, people are talking about small family agriculture more, but they persist in export- promoting policies. The prevailing discourse is that more must be produced, but the real problem is that a billion people don't have enough money to buy the food that is available.

When the FAO projects that to feed nine billion people in 2050, an increase in agricultural production of 70 percent will be required and that world meat production and consumption will go from 270 million tons to 470 million, it evades the issue of whether it makes any sense to encourage the perpetuation of modes of consumption with extremely negative impacts.

If the whole world were to imitate the United States' dietary regime, we'd need six planets.

How will the climate change question affect agriculture?

Agriculture is already the victim of climate change, with a drought that reduced harvests by 20 percent this summer in India, with recurrent drought in Central America ...

The projections for 2020 are very worrying. At the same time, agriculture is co-responsible for this situation: 33 percent of green house gases are attributable to it.

Bringing agriculture to better respect the environment presupposes a move to agro-ecological modes of production.

May a connection be made between trade liberalization and the environment?

A recent World Trade Organization Report (WTO) concludes that trade and the environment may be complementary: Trade would promote the transfer of clean technologies; and, with climate change, more and more regions are going to find themselves in a food deficit situation and will have to buy more from others to feed themselves.

What's missing is an analysis of the environmental impact of export agriculture. When people produce for export, they revert to large monoculture plantations. They deplete the soil, provoke erosion and demand a great deal of fertilizer and pesticides.

Another aspect which this report deals with very inadequately is an analysis of the distances covered by food products from the places where they are produced to the places where they are consumed.

In the world today, every food product covers between 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers. Shorter supply lines use far less energy and fuel than long ones.

We must give priority to food-producing crops to respond to local needs and disperse food production so that it occurs as close as possible to where it is consumed.

Are you in favor of planting trees to compensate for CO2 emissions?

Among the many factors pushing land speculation are the great tree planting projects linked to the bait represented by the pollution rights market.

I think it's too facile a solution because it spares us from reflecting about the ways to reduce our energy consumption.

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