Agriculture Official: Energy Costs Drive Food Crisis

The rise in food prices is a global concern, and the U.S. — which gives half of the world's food aid, more than any other country — is being pressured to act. Critics say the U.S. should give cash instead of food and help poor countries develop and buy food locally.

World leaders came together in Rome last week for a meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer was there. He says as demand around the world increases, "unless we make huge investments in increasing productivity in countries that haven't done so in the past, people are going to start going hungry."

"Energy costs are so high and transportation is chewing up so much of the money that's on the table, we're not being able to get as much food effectively to people as we used to be," Schafer tells host Renee Montagne.

He says Congress was asked to allow 25 percent of U.S. food aid to be purchased locally, especially on an emergency basis, when speed often is an issue, but the proposal wasn't approved. Instead, a pilot program is under way "so we can show Congress how it can be beneficial for our humanitarian responsibilities for the rest of the world."

The U.N. summit in Rome sidestepped the controversy that has grown over biofuels, but many economists say using corn for ethanol is driving up the costs for basic food in many parts of the world. Schafer says the Bush administration has a strong biofuels policy and is committed to it.

Although more corn is going toward ethanol production, he says the U.S. is avoiding problems by increasing its yields of corn and its markets for corn.

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