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Yesterday's food complacency proves hard to swallow

02-Jun-2008

For too long, the developed world has taken food for granted. For years, ample food stocks, a well-supplied export trade and rapidly rising agricultural productivity have confined food fears, in the west at least, to history and the memories of older generations.

It has proved a costly complacency; the scale of which we are only just beginning to realise. How easy it is to forget the European famines of the war years, the end of British food rationing in 1953, and the US food shortages of the 1930s. Thankfully, fewer people are taking food for granted now: Particularly not the officials attending the Food Summit in Rome tomorrow organised by the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Or, the food companies which are becoming increasingly concerned about sourcing scarce and increasingly costly raw materials. As the officials throng the meeting rooms tomorrow, uppermost in their minds is likely to be the FAO's latest Agricultural Outlook report covering the period up to 2018 with its stark warning of higher prices for cereals, oilseeds, sugar, meats, milk and dairy produce. Beef and pork prices could rise by 20 per cent within ten years, wheat by 60 per cent and vegetable oils by up to 80 per cent, forecasts the report. Meanwhile, will the representatives of developed nations in the northern hemisphere consider themselves at least partly culpable for what is now termed the global food crisis? Some should. By what collective amnesia did western policy-makers come to regard food and key food ingredients as something the west should buy mainly on world commodity markets? For years, an over-looked, sometimes mis-understand and frequently mis-represented, minority advised against abandoning agricultural productivity in Europe in favour of reliance on world export markets. They wasted their breath. In Europe, environmentalism became the new ideal. Productive land that had been nurtured for generations was left idle in set-aside programmes from Scandinavia to Spain. Fostering wildlife habitats rather than encouraging agricultural productivity became the pre-eminent concern of policy-makers and the governments which employed them. Across the Atlantic, particularly in the United States and Brazil, growing crops for fuel rather than for food is increasingly swallowing up millions of acres of highly productive agricultural land formerly devoted to food production. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), biofuel production is responsible for only a 2-3 per cent increase in global food prices while reducing the consumption of crude oil by 1m barrels a day. But, Keith Collins the USDA's recently retired chief economist told the Washington Post that ethanol was "the foot on the accelerator of corn (maize) demand." Even blunter was Merritt Cluff, one of the authors of the FAO report: "We are very worried about biofuel policy. US government incentives for ethanol producers are distorting the market." Their concerns are well-placed. Of course, other factors are driving global food fears: Not least higher oil prices (boosting food production, processing and distribution costs), changing diets in developing nations such as China and fickle world weather patterns. Controlling the weather may not yet lie within the grasp of policy-makers but there are other powerful levers at their disposal. It's a long list which includes fostering research dedicated to lifting the productivity of temperate and sub-tropical food crops, water management, considering the appropriate use of genetically modified technology and, not least, policy directives favouring food production. When it comes to planning global food production and distribution, laissez-faire economics have failed and will continue to fail in a 21st century challenged by oil dependence, rocketing consumption and volatile weather. Decisive action must be the response to the current food crisis. Millions of people worldwide, and the food and distribution companies who supply them, need and deserve the policy-makers to deliver nothing less.


If you would like to share your views on the global food trade, the FAO report or development topics please email your comments to michael.stones'at'decisionnews.com.

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