When they started planning the food summit in Rome a year ago, itwas going to be about the impact of climate change and bio-fuels on theworld's food supply. It turned out to be mainly about the runaway price offood, which is having a big impact on the world's poor -- and that's apity, because there's not a lot that an international conference can doabout a short-term problem like that.
The conference, sponsored by the UN's Food and AgricultureOrganisation, attracted forty heads of state and government -- far morethan it would have a year ago -- because they have to be seen to be doingsomething about prices. But the immediate need to find the money to feedthe very poor, who simply cannot buy food at current prices, has been metby a donation of $500 million from Saudi Arabia that covers two-thirds ofthe World Food Programme's $755 million emergency appeal.
There's not much more to be done about the short-term problem,because the huge rise in the prices of basic foods over the past year --rice tripled in price and wheat more than doubled -- has been driven mainlyby the market over-reacting to relatively minor mismatches of supply anddemand. A five percent shortfall in world wheat supply, caused partly bythe Australian drought, led to a 130 percent rise in price, but the priceis already coming down again on the expectation of a much bigger crop thisyear.
In rice, there was no shortfall at all, but supply was so tightthat prices started going up, whereupon some of the biggest producers likeIndia, Pakistan and Vietnam imposed export bans to protect their domesticmarkets from shortages. Since only about 7 percent of the world's rice istraded internationally, that immediately led to panic buying by bigimporters like the Philippines and Indonesia, and in mid-May the price hit$1,000 a tonne. (It was $327 a year ago.)
Maize (corn, mealies) was a different case, with a huge andever-growing share of the crop in the United States being diverted intothe black hole of bio-fuel, and absolute scarcities in some other countriesas a result. Maybe the conference could do something about that, althoughsince the Bush administration (which created this folly with its subsidies)is still in office in the United States, it seems unlikely.
The current spike in food prices will ease, but the long-termproblem is real, because the 200-year trend of falling food prices isprobably at an end. The cost of food as a share of total income has beenfalling since the settlement of the US Midwest, the Argentine pampas andAustralia brought huge new areas of land into cultivation during 19thcentury. The human population has grown sixfold since 1800, but untilrecently food production has grown even faster most of the time, so pricesfell.
That era is now over. More land could be brought under the plough,especially in Africa, but it would barely balance the amount that is goingout of production worldwide because of urbanisation and salination.
The huge rise in crop yields of the latter 20th century cannot berepeated, because putting even more fertiliser on the land will not raiseyields further in most places, and besides water availability is now a hugeconstraint. Indeed, much of the land now under irrigation will go back todryland farming when the fossil aquifers that provide the water are pumpeddry, mostly in the next fifty years.
And all this before we even get to the problem the FAO conferencewas actually supposed to deal with: climate change. The first and worstimpact of global warming will be to reduce the rainfall over some of theworld's main crop-growing areas, so the future may be one of growingpopulation (9 billion by 2050, up from 6.5 billion now?) and decliningglobal food production.
Moreover, demand is growing even faster than population becauserising prosperity, in Asian countries in particular, is leading to hugerises in meat consumption (up about 150 percent in China since the 1980s).Turning grain into meat involves an input-to-output ratio of betweenthree-to-one and eight-to-one, depending on what kind of meat is beingproduced, so huge amounts of grain production are being withdrawn fromhuman consumption as meat production rises.
The right priorities, in this situation, are to work on banning themost harmful forms of bio-fuel in the medium term -- "diverting around 100million tonnes of cereals to bio-fuel has had an impact on food prices," asFAO head Jacques Diouf tactfully put it -- and to concentrate on measuresthat help agriculture to adapt to climate change for the longer term.(Plus, of course, measures to mitigate how much climate change we actuallycause with our greenhouse gas emissions.)
The current food price crisis, though mainly a market phenomenon, has pushed all that aside. All we are going to see for a while from the politicians is short-term fire-fighting in an area where there is actually little that they can usefully do. A pity, though not exactly a surprise.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.