UN urges radical changes in food production
PARIS: Major agricultural countries must urgently change their policies to avoid a social explosion from rising food prices, a panel of United Nations experts warned Tuesday, adding their voices to new concerns about the proper balance between saving the environment and feeding the poor.
"Modern agriculture will have to change radically if the international community wants to cope with growing populations and climate change, while avoiding social fragmentation and irreversible deterioration of the environment," said Salvatore Arico, a biodiversity specialist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, summarizing the report by about 400 experts.
The report tries to provide a comprehensive view on how to produce food that is less dependent on fossil fuels; favors locally available resources, natural fertilizers and traditional seeds; and tries to preserve the soil and water supply.
The prices of basic food like rice, wheat and corn have been rising sharply, setting off violent popular protests in countries including Haiti, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Italy. The unrest has resulted in tens of deaths and helped lead to the dismissal on Saturday of the Haitian prime minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, and the increasing cost of subsidizing bread prices is a major worry for key American allies like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Wheat prices have risen by 130 percent since March of last year, and soy prices have risen 87 percent, the United Nations said, with food now representing 60 percent to 80 percent of consumer spending in developing countries. In general, the World Bank has said that food prices have climbed about 83 percent worldwide over the past three years.
Three years in the making, the report ? known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development ? says that modern agriculture has brought significant increases in food production, but that the benefits have been spread unevenly and at "an increasingly intolerable price, paid by small-scale farmers, workers, rural communities and the environment."
Even before the United Nations panel added its voice to the debate, major international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had issued their own loud warnings at their annual meetings over the weekend about the dangers of the rising price of food, which has many causes.
These include bad weather, historically high prices for oil and transportation, increased demand for meat and dairy products in the richer Asian countries, and the Western push to use "biofuels" made from grain, especially corn, to reduce the world's dependence on fossil fuels.
Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, called on rich nations to provide an additional $500 million to the World Food Program of the United Nations. On Monday, President George W. Bush ordered that $200 million in emergency food aid be made available to "meet unanticipated food aid needs in Africa and elsewhere," the White House announced.
The World Bank intends to nearly double its agricultural lending to Africa next year, to $800 million, and the finance ministers who serve as the International Monetary Fund's board of governors said the two institutions should work together to provide "an integrated response" to the crisis.
"As financial markets have tumbled, food prices have soared," Zoellick said. "Since 2005 the prices of staples have jumped 80 percent."
The United States has been criticized for pressing for the use of biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, as a way to reduce oil consumption and to keep corn prices high for farmers. But the same prices that please farmers are causing shortages in basic grains used for food in the developing world.
The European Union has been rethinking its emphasis on the use of biofuels, even as the European Commission on Monday rejected an appeal from an advisory panel to suspend its goal of having 10 percent of its transportation fuel made from biofuel by 2020. That goal is seen as an integral part of the European Union's pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by that year, as part of the effort to reduce global warming.
The United Nations special rapporteur for the right to food, Jean Ziegler, has said biofuels are "a crime against humanity" because they raise global food prices. But Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for the European Union environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said, "You can't change a political objective without risking a debate on all the other objectives" of climate change and energy reform.
The British in particular have asked for an urgent review of biofuel programs. The French agriculture minister, Michel Barnier, has said "absolute priority" must be given to food production.
Other critics, however, have pointed to the way the European Union subsidizes its agricultural exports, which is to get rid of European surpluses to keep European farmers happy, while selling at a price well below the cost of production ? thus undermining the ordinary market for local food production in Africa.
The quandary is an example of how environmental aims may have to give way to the needs of the poor ? or, as the Unesco report urges, that agricultural methods will have to change.
Providing enough food for the poor, while taking care of health needs and the environment, means "reconciling contradictory objectives," said Guilhem Calvo, a consultant to the Unesco Division of Ecological and Earth Sciences.
Among its findings, for instance, the Unesco panel's report says that the growing involvement of women in agriculture in developing countries is creating worsening health and work conditions for them and is reducing their access to education. The report also highlighted the intensifying water shortage in large parts of Africa and central and western Asia.
Robert Watson, the report's director, said that it repeated an old message about the cost of concentrating "on production alone," resulting in "an increasingly degraded and divided planet."
But it is a message not always heard, he said, adding, "If those with power are now willing to hear it, then we may hope for more equitable policies that do take the interest of the poor into account."
Australia, China, the United States and Canada expressed reservations about some of the language in the report concerning biotechnology, especially genetically modified foods, which many believe have the potential to ease the food crisis, but others regard as potentially dangerous for the future.