Feeding Politics to the Hungry

Rome – The high watermark of world history, the cradle of bountiful museums, the breeding ground of art patrons – the first city to have witnessed a stark reversal in the adage, “it is easier to be wise after the event”, for the end of the three day UN Food Price Crisis Summit (apart from having staged political reverence and some well-rehearsed blame-games) has left the world in itself still lost about the causes and solutions to the crisis issue of international hunger.

Hosted by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, the UN Summit on Food Security – it was hailed as a unique moment in history for world leaders to re-launch their fight against hunger and poverty. It left no stones unturned in fashioning itself as a playpen of the two antagonistic blocs; namely the “producers” and the “non-producers” of bio-fuel, .The developed countries or the “gainers”, having a strong financial, technological and managerial reserve and the developing or poor countries, the “losers”, suffering from chronic hunger caused by the global food crisis. These deprived countries are forced to import, aggravating violence in the war-zones and are continually struggling to feed their people.

High oil prices, growing demand, flawed trade policies; panic buying and speculation have sent worldwide food prices sky-rocketing. Presently, 37 nations are threatened by the global food crisis. Global consumption of wheat and rice has been outstripping production for the past seven years. Today, hunger poses a bigger threat to international stability than terrorism. The current food crisis amounts to a gross violation of human rights and could fuel a global catastrophe. Food production is following an additive pattern of growth; however population outsmarts it with a multiplicative jive. Between the years 2002-07, food riots have shook countries like Nigeria, Eritrea, Comoros, Haiti, Liberia, Egypt, Somalia, India, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Austria, Hungary and Uzbekistan etc. Global wheat stocks are down to 107 million MT (Metric Tonnes) in 2007 as compared to over 200 million MT in 2001. Rice stocks are 71 million MT in 2007, as compared to 136 million MT in 2001. The Great Wheat Panic of 2007 has spiked prices by over 92% and the price of rice has doubled since January 2007. The world’s urban poor have been hit the hardest. The current food situation reminds us of the fragile balance between global food supplies and the needs of world inhabitants, and of the fact that prior commitments to accelerate progress towards the eradication of hunger have not been met. The fact that the world leaders have finally woken up to steal a glance at mankind – which is already halfway down the abyss of hunger is in itself a cause of elation. Of course, ‘mankind’ here is completely unrelated to the political brass knobs and therein, is silently denied his human rights. The aim of the Summit was perfectly situational- charting strategies to reach out to the 862 million (and still counting) dieing and hungry. But, as every silver lining inadvertently always has a cloud attached to it, hopes of astute policy-making was lost somewhere around the round tables as disputes centred around the ‘bio fuel debate’ moved to a new venue – the fish market. Nations pitted against each other and actively transformed bio-energy (once hailed as the ultimate green fuel) into the cog in the wheel, the villain spiking global food prices. Bio fuel uses the energy contained in organic matter, crops like, \sugarcane and corn to produce ethanol which is an alternative to fossil-based fuels like petrol. The US, Brazil and the EU, which are the main players on the bio-fuel stage(“the producers”) chanced the scaffold as the “non-producers” decried the heavily subsidised bio fuel industry as fundamentally immoral, diverting land which should be used to fill human stomachs to produce food for car engines. Statistics as real as you and I show that it takes the same amount of grain to fill an SUV with ethanol as it does to feed a person. Rationality and reason were lost in the bog of the ‘dead habit of mindless retaliation’ as the “producers” blamed (or rather mocked) economic growth in the Asian Giants – India and China for the inflationary pressure. Feelings thus ran high between the two factions of the world leaders.

The fact that participation in the UN Summit appears jinxed did nothing to dither the media from washing the Summit’s dirty linen in public, which is the only unmistakable thing that it did in the course of covering the Summit at Rome. The Summit was ruefully deprived of its much-deserved pat-in-the-back for drawing honorific participation from Cristina Fernandes de Kerchner (President of Argentina), Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (President of Brazil), Nicolas Sarkosy (President of France), Yasuo Fikuda (Prime Minister of Japan) and other prominent Heads of State. Perhaps nobody bothered to compare the 2008 Summit participation with the previous UN Summit held in 2002, where countries were represented by “junior ministers”. Interestingly, food crisis prevailed then as well, so perhaps – the participation has something to do with the event being red carpeted. Apart from political blather, the UN Summit was plentiful in another aspect – “sensation”. One of the ripest was the invitation extended to a host of political leaders who have systematically destroyed and bankrupted their countries. Amongst the dignitaries was, Robert Mugabe, the man responsible for leading Zimbabwe into poverty and hunger. This emphasized the arrogance of international civil servants who view the developed world as a bottomless cash-machine. The world leaders, in all fairness, are possibly waiting for September to end to either demand accountability or close the machine. Ironically, the three – day wrangle did come up with some declaration .On the record – a call for greater food production, increase in investment in agriculture, reduction in trade barriers, partnership agreements between developed and poor countries, increase in aids and a call for ‘in-depth studies”. Off the records – a clear recommendation to the West, “Leave your cars and go hungry for a while”.

The three-day summit held in Rome by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization this week, starting from June 3, 2008 highlighted all that is wrong with the United Nations, the international community and the way developing nations mask their political shortcomings. Hunger, death, mass-starvation, poverty were treated as mere words by the world leaders who in reality, should have placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the political leaders of the developing world – owing to their incompetence, corruption, avarice and megalomania. The outrage of the poor – paying for decades due to policy mistakes was fuelled, not vanquished and the thoughtful community braces itself for an imminent carnage. A bold critic might say that it is high time for the world to throw out the organisation lock, stock and barrel and find more competent people to do the job.

UN Summit 1996 – A pledge to halve hunger and increase 50 per cent food production by 2015.

UN Summit 2002 – Situation had worsened since 1996. Millions more had slipped into hunger.

UN Summit 2008 – A pledge to reduce hunger by half and increase food production by 2030.

Will the Rome Summit go far enough?

Meanwhile….hunger lingers.

Bhavna Tripathy