Hunger on the rise globally and at home; Rome food summit a flop

Inaction to halt speculation on agricultural commodities and continued policies that promote “biofuels” are paving the way for a replay of the 2008 food price crisis in 2010 or 2011, warns Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food. The conditions that triggered the 2007-8 price crisis are still present, and panic in the international market is likely to reappear as early as next year, De Schutter said.

Nothing has been done on biofuels, speculation or the other causes of the crisis which erupted in 2008, De Schutter said, foreseeing “the seeds” of a new crisis in the recent increase in the price of oil. However, De Schutter stressed that the 2007-2008 was a “price crisis, not a food crisis.”

“It was a crisis linked to the evolution of prices on the international market, set by speculation,” the rapporteur argued. “It was a financial phenomenon primarily and it was not linked to insufficient food being produced. He emphasized that “we have enough food” and that hunger is not the result of food being produced in inefficient conditions, as claimed by many scientists, think-tanks and agribusiness.

“It is the result of food being produced in conditions which are increasingly competitive, which displace small farmers and which condemn them to subsistence agriculture,” De Schutter said. (EurActiv, Nov. 26)

A UN food security summit opened in Rome this week, but was not attended by the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was the only leader from the G8 industrialized countries among the 60 heads of state and governments to show up at the summit. Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Libya’s Muammar Qadaffi were among those in attendance. The US, which is the world’s biggest food aid donor, sent the acting head of the US Agency for International Development, while Britain sent two junior ministers.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon painted a sobering picture in is opening remarks. “Today, more than 1 billion people are hungry,” he told the assembled leaders. Six million children die of hunger every year, 17000 every day, he said. Pope Benedict XVI also addressed gthering, calling for an end to the “greed” of financial speculation on food prices.

Jacques Diouf, head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), urged governments to invest $44 billion a year to end chronic hunger, and noted that world hunger has continued to rise even with food prices falling from their peaks of last year. Diouf said he was not satisfied with the final declaration of the summit in Rome, which vowed “urgent action” to boost food security–but not for not including exact targets to reduce hunger. (Seoul Times, Nov. 27)

The US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service’s (ERS) has meanwhile released its annual report on Household Food Security in the US, which revealed that in 2008, 17 million households, or 14.6%, were food insecure, with families having difficulty putting enough food on the table at times during the year. This is an increase from 13 million households, or 11.1%, in 2007. The 2008 figures represent the highest level observed since nationally representative food security surveys were initiated in 1995.

This year’s report also reveals that one third of food-insecure households had “very low food security,” meaning food intake of household members was reduced and their eating patterns disrupted at times during the year. This is 5.7% of all U.S. households or about 6.7 million. This is up from 4.7 million households (4.1%) in 2007, and the again highest level observed since nationally representative food security surveys were initiated in 1995. (USDA press release, Nov. 16)

A Los Angeles Times editorial on the report finds the “biggest culprit” to be the economic crisis and associated unemployment, which stands at 10.2% and is expected to keep climbing into 2010. “The best thing we can say about the labor market is that it may be getting worse more slowly,” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said last week. (LAT, Nov. 26)

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