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Volatile Food Prices Grab G-20's Full Attention

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Volatile Food Prices Grab G-20's Full Attention

World

Volatile Food Prices Grab G-20's Full Attention

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today and tomorrow, the agriculture ministers from the world's largest economies meet in Paris. Now, ag ministers do not typically make world news, but these are not typical times. A spike in world food prices three years ago sparked panic and deadly riots on three continents. Now, food security, as it's called, is seen as a major global issue.

Eleanor Beardsley reports.

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Mr. JEAN LOUIS CHAMPY (Farmer): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Jean Louis Champy grows wheat on the rolling plains of northern France, in a fertile stretch of land known as the breadbasket of the European Union.

Mr. CHAMPY: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: But this year's drought, the worst in 50 years, has likely cut his harvest by a third. Champy and his dog wade into a field of wheat that is toasted golden brown.

Mr. CHAMPY: (Through translator) See here? We have half the usual number of heads on the wheat, and the stalks are much shorter than they should be. This wheat should be green and still growing, but it's already at full maturity and ready to be harvested. And it's only June.

BEARDSLEY: Champy is not alone. Fires and drought have stunted wheat crops elsewhere in Europe, and this year's U.S. corn crop has also been hit by drought.

Because of these shortages, some experts are already predicting another rise in grain prices like that of 2008. David Nabarro is a food security expert with the United Nations. He says that for decades, governments thought they didn't have to worry about agriculture because prices stayed even or dropped. But 2008 changed all that.

Mr. DAVID NABARRO (Food Security Expert, United Nations): Food became an issue that was of central political importance to presidents, heads of governments. In addition, we found that food production systems were getting intertwined with environmental issues and climate change. So, food and agriculture has now become a big political issue.

BEARDSLEY: Nabarro says decision-makers must find ways to ensure sustainable agricultural growth to feed a planet of nine billion people by 2050. Production must be increased, but market distortions must also be addressed. Countries must work together, says Nabarro. The 2008 food crisis was worsened when some countries panicked and began blocking their exports.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, which is hosting the G-20 this year, has made fighting food price volatility a central plank of the G-20 agenda. In particular, Sarkozy has called for controlling excessive commodity market speculation that exacerbates food price swings.

(Soundbite of applause)

BEARDSLEY: Last week, on the eve of the agriculture ministers' meeting, farmers from 120 nations gathered in Paris, calling their meeting the G-120. Wheat farmer Robert Carlson, head of the North Dakota Farmers Union, was there. Carlson says it is now vital for farmers to understand the global situation and not just what's happening in their own country.

Mr. ROBERT CARLSON (North Dakota Farmers Union): What we have become interested in in the United States is this question of are we really in a new era now when, instead of dealing all the time with how to get rid of surpluses, the challenge is going to be to grow enough food for the world. Are we really there?

BEARDSLEY: Recent reports by the U.N. and food relief organizations predict that global food prices could double in the next two decades, affecting the world's poorest people. Relief organization Oxfam estimates that in the last few years, rising staples prices pushed an estimated 44 million people into poverty.

African Farmer Djibo Bagna from Niger says his continent is in peril.

Mr. DJIBO BAGNA (Farmer) (Through translator) Those who bear the brunt of shortages and hunger are not countries in the G-20, but mostly African farmers. So it's important that our leaders be able to participate in world meetings on agriculture.

BEARDSLEY: These farmers say they hope G-20 agriculture ministers will be able to agree on at least a broad action plan to curb price and market volatility in the agricultural sector.

But food security analysts say, given the different agricultural interests of the G-20 nations, that is doubtful. Still, they say, the fact that the world has come together to talk about it is a huge step.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley, in Paris.

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