Friday, June 6, 2008

A three-day United Nations (UN) summit, bringing together leaders from 181 countries, has wrapped up with a pledge by all attending countries to address the global food shortage crisis. Key actions cited include doubling the world’s food production by 2030, providing resources for farmers in poor countries and increasing humanitarian aid in times of crisis.

Protests and violent riots have resulted in parts of the world in recent months due to increasing unaffordability, and sometimes unavailability, of food. It is estimated that 862 million people, or just over one eighth of the world’s population, are malnourished.

According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, up to US$20 billion will be required annually to avert crises in the most hard-hit areas. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has put the figure closer to US$30 billion. Pledges made just at the summit amounted to more than US$5 billion, according to the UN.

Despite the largely positively-received outcome of the summit, held in Rome, Italy, there were some who felt that the proceedings could have gone better. Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) pointed to the fact that they were not invited to partake in the discussions. Food and hunger policy adviser Magda Kropiwnicka of ActionAid commented on the strength of the final pledge: “There were no quantifiable financial commitments. Apart from the existing UN Food and Agriculture Organisation funds, no money has been given to address the key problem of boosting capacity.”

While most delegates agreed that biofuels have been one of the causes of the food crisis, no actions were agreed upon to address this hot topic. Biofuels have been increasingly in demand in recent years, meaning that many crops that would have previously been used for food are now being used as fuel.

The impact that biofuels has goes further than simply increasing the demand of food crops. As fuel prices increase, so do the costs of fertilisers, farm vehicle use and the transport of foods. All of this adds up to a large increase in the cost of food.

Some UN officials say that biofuel use has caused up to 30% of the global food price inflation of late. The United States estimates that figure to be closer to just 3%. The Globe and Mail newspaper indicates that some estimates go as high as 60%. The only consensus that could be reached on biofuels is that they provide both “challenges and opportunities”, and need to be looked into further for a conclusive analysis on their impact on food production.

Other factors increasing food prices are increased consumption of meat and dairy products in developing nations like China and India. Argentina noted that subsidies granted to farmers from the US, the European Union and other Western countries have also been a major player in the increase.