U.N. Holds Summit on Soaring Food Prices

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UN Food Security Conference in Rome. Giulio Napolitano/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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The Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is hosting a three-day summit to try to solve the short-term emergency of increased hunger caused by soaring prices. Richard Owen, a Rome-based reporter for British newspaper, The Times, is covering the conference.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host: Global food prices are at a 30-year high, and as the cost of food soars, so have the numbers of the world's hungry. The U.N. estimates that the jump in prices is pushing 100 million people into hunger, adding to the 850 million already hungry around the globe. With the world food market in a state of emergency ,more than 40 heads of state are in Rome today, wrapping up a three-day crisis summit sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The goal? To create a multinational agreement on global food security. But with bickering over almost every issue, from biotech to biofuels, expectations for a substantial global initiative to fight hunger are flagging. Richard Owen is the covering the conference on World Food Security for the British newspaper The Times. He joins us now on the phone from the conference. Richard, thanks for being here.

Mr. RICHARD OWEN (Reporter, The Times): Not at all, my pleasure.

MARTIN: The World Bank president, who's attending this conference, Robert Zelleck, said in some prepared remarks during the conference, quote, "This is not a natural catastrophe. It's manmade and can be fixed by us. It does not take complex research. we know what has to be done. we just need action and resources in real time." So, what did they come up with?

Mr. OWEN: Well, I think we're going to find out in about three hours time, and what they're likely to come up with is agreements on short-term emergency aid. The World Food Programme, which is part of the U.N.'s agricultural institutions, yesterday said it was rolling out an additional 1.2 billion dollars in food assistance to help ten - tens of millions of people in over 60 nations hardest hit by the food crisis.

So, I think no trouble at all about agreeing that kind of immediate food aid, but what there is disagreement about of course, is the longer-term and the fundamental causes of the food crisis, whether it for example, trade tariffs are to blame or indeed controversial biofuels. There's a very big gap on biofuels between, obviously, those nations which produce them in large quantities, the United States, Canada and Brazil, and a lot of other nations, which think that it's a mistake to divert crops from feeding people to making fuel for vehicles.

MARTIN: Let's talk about that a little more, because the biofuel issue has become so controversial and has been pegged for a cause of the world food crisis. What are the represented - Brazil's president actually, Lula da Silva, is there. He spoke out in defense of biofuels. As you mentioned, Brazil, one of the top three producers of biofuels and that kind of technology. What are the arguments that those producers of biofuel are making in defense of their production?

Mr. OWEN: Well, they're claiming that as long as the use of biofuels is what is called sustainable, it doesn't in fact detract from the use of crops, or indeed other measures like support for many - the millions of small holders around the world, to - for - to produce food. What there is, is a difference however between the United States and Brazil.

President Lula of Brazil, who's here, has said, and I quote, "It offends me to see fingers pointed at biofuel, which produce clean energy, when those fingers are soiled with oil and coal." The point is that he says that Brazil, which produces ethanol from sugar cane, rather than corn as in the United States, is both efficient and clean. I think a lot of delegates are torn on this.

Oxfam, the - which is not part of the conference, but like a lot of food agencies and aid agencies, is taking part in the margin, says that - it still insists the biofuel is adding fuel to the fire, as it says, using food crops to produce transport fuels is a hugely inefficient use of agriculture. So Jacques Diouf, who's the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has quite a tough job, I think, in trying to find a middle way, and indeed Ed Schafer, the U.S. agricultural secretary, said last night he doubted there would be - could possibly be a positive agreement on biofuels. He did later, I must say, clarify that, saying he thought there was a move towards consensus...

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

Mr. OWEN: Or mutually acceptable wording, but I think the trouble on that, and on these other vexed issues, such as protectionism and trade tariffs, is that that mutually acceptable wording is going to be so vague, as to be almost meaningless.

PESCA: Well, speaking of that very point, isn't to say about biofuels, as long as they're sustainable, isn't that circular reasoning, saying as long as there is no problem with them, there shouldn't be a problem with them?

Mr. OWEN: Well, that certainly would be the view of many of the delegates here. Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: Let's talk...

Mr. OWEN: I mean, the Japanese prime minister, Mr. Fukuda, said listen, in some cases biofuel is - biofuel production is certainly in competition with food supplies. We need to ensure the biofuel production is sustainable. This word sustainable is a sort of - some kind of magic word.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Uh-huh...

Mr. OWEN: Supposed to get around this fundamental contradiction, but the problem with the use of words like that is, they don't actually resolve the contradiction at all.

MARTIN: Richard, another issue is agricultural subsidies, specifically in the West.

Mr. OWEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Western governments subsidizing farmers, giving them a substantial advantage over farmers in the third world or the developing world rather. Does the conference - does it tend to split down the line between the haves and the have-nots, the developing world versus the developed world?

Mr. OWEN: It pretty much does, with the exception of Britain, which has long campaigned against farm subsidies here within Europe, particularly having in mind French agriculture. In fact Douglas Alexander, who's the British representative here, he's the international development secretary, has come out and pinned part of the responsibility for the food price crisis, precisely on farm subsidies. He said, and I quote, "It's unacceptable that rich countries still subsidize farming by a billion dollars a day, and this costs poor farmers in developing countries an estimated 100 billion dollars a year in lost income."

Well, that's a familiar tale from the British point of view, but of course, it's not supported by many other countries in Europe, or indeed, in the western world. So yes, I think on biofuels, on - as I said on reducing trade tariffs, on export restrictions, on farm subsidies, it's difficult at this stage, as I say, with only three hours to go before they issue their declaration, difficult to see how they're really going to gloss over these fundamental points of difference.

MARTIN: Yeah. I want to ask...

Mr. OWEN: Like, we're in a situation where we haven't really advanced that much since the World Food Summit of 1996, which adopted a plan for action in which we undertook to halve the number of the world's hungry by 2015. Well, we're not far from that target date, and that plan of action was endorsed by the last World Food Summit here in Rome in 2002, I guess now in 2008 we don't seem to be anywhere near achieving that.

MARTIN: Some skepticism then about the effectualness or the impact that this statement will make in these summits. I want to - in that spirit, I want to ask you finally about the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Many critics are saying their mere presence at this conference undermines the impact or the validity of this conference. How has their presence affected what's going on there?

Mr. OWEN: Well, it certainly did in media terms, there's no question that. On Tuesday, the opening day of the conference, when both of them spoke, most of the media attention clearly went to Mr. Mugabe's - well, first of all the - what was just described by some western leaders as the obscenity of his presence at a conference on hunger, when he himself was responsible for starvation and the collapse in Zimbabwe, and the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, and then his speech in which he blamed the United States and the European Union for the troubles of Zimbabwe, because of sanctions imposed on him.

And then Mr. Ahmadinejad, who outside the conference attacked once again Israel and Zionism, saying Israel would disappear from the map, and then used the conference itself to suggest that the world's economic problems were the result of manipulation by unseen hidden and sinister profiteering forces. Well, all of that was described to me by one FAO official as sort of distracting cabaret (unintelligible), which, in the sense that it distracted the world media, I don't know though that it distracted those behind the scenes, the so-called Sherpas, whose job it is to actually fo - try and forge a common agreement here. I don't think that those fireworks on the stage, distracted them from the substance of the problems under discussion.

MARTIN: As so often...

Mr. OWEN: The problem there is...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. OWEN: I beg your pardon?

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr. OWEN: No. I was going to say the problem there, I think, is not so much the distraction of these two pariah leaders, appearing under United Nations auspices in defiance of (unintelligible), and certainly Mr. Mugabe's case of a - an EU ban on him traveling to Europe. I don't think the problem is that so much as what I've outlined before, which is the unbridge - almost unbridgeable divide, it seems, between rich and poor nations over how to proceed, and I can see that what is almost certainly going to happen, is that some of these issues will be deferred to the next big international meeting, which is the G8 Summit in Japan next month, and the resumption of the Doha Rounds of the trade talks by the World Trade Organization, the WTO.

MARTIN: So this is - clearly many more big summits and conferences ahead. This is an issue that we'll be talking about for awhile. Richard Owen is the Rome based reporter covering the conference on world food security for the British paper the Times. Richard, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

Mr. OWEN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Take care. $00.00

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