Sunday, March 02, 2008

An open goal in the making

A thought-provoking piece in The Observer continues the theme we discussed yesterday, this one headed, "Surging food prices put the world on high alert".

Global population growth and a shift from grain-based diets are contributing to a sharp rise in the cost of food, which has already sparked riots in several African countries, is the opening gambit, allowing Richard Wachman to look at "the threats to developed and developing countries and the hurdles in the path of increased productivity."

Wachman echoes our concerns about the effects food shortages might have, telling us that if you: "Scratch beneath the surface of major social or political upheaval - the French or Russian revolutions, Germany's military collapse in 1918 or more recently China's Tiananmen Square - and you will find that food shortages, brought about by crop failure, naval blockade or spiralling prices, lie at the heart of the matter."

No wonder, he writes, that recent steep rises in the cost of basic foodstuffs including wheat, barley, maize, rice, cotton and soya are sending shockwaves around a developed world used to bargain-basement prices at supermarkets. Anecdotal evidence in Britain suggests that people living in deprived areas are reining in expenditure to cut food bills that have been edging higher since 2004.

Actually, as we have continually noted, the interesting thing is that the rises have not cause "shockwaves" – at least in Britain. Over here, the political classes and the media have been remarkably relaxed about the whole issue.

In less developed countries, however, the situation is more serious. Wachman tells us that dearer food has sparked riots in former French west Africa, Yemen and Zimbabwe. In Burkina Faso, one of Africa's poorest countries, troops were called out to quell widespread public disorder. Disturbances have also been reported in Mauritania and Senegal.

Then, with a reference to the situation in China, we get an interesting quote from Robert Ziegler, of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute. He warns that "civil unrest" is possible as people in China are eating more rice than is being produced, and that the cost of rice has doubled to $400 a ton in five years. "We are at a pre-crisis stage," Ziegler says. "The way things are coming together isn't pretty."

The is the second direct warning of food riots we have recorded and, it seems, it is not only China where the problems will arise. Wachman warns that the price of food is heading north for a variety of reasons, but taken together, they represent "a perfect storm". Prices are expected to continue to surge for the next two or three years, perhaps longer.

Thus it is that global food security, he concludes, "is fast becoming one of the most important issues of the 21st century". While there is disagreement about how to tackle the problem, few believe that it will diminish in importance in the foreseeable future.

This piece is one of a gaggle produced over the last few days, one other being on the Voice of America website. It offers more predictable fare, with the heading, "Climate Change Threatens Food Supply in Many Regions", referring to a "new study" from Stanford University's Program on Food Security which highlights the threat to food production posed by climate change.

This is worth noting, not least because – despite the current shortages – world food production has in fact increased to record levels. Where there are shortages at the consumer end, it is the response to global warming that has created the problem. If there is a downturn in production next year, it will have been the bad winter affecting much of the nothern hemisphere – cooling rather than warming.

But, when it comes to getting things topsy-turvey, there is no one as skilled as a europhile. One example is John Palmer, a member of the governing board, and former political director, of the European Policy Centre.

Writing in the Guardian's Comment is free, he displays the classic ignorance of the breed with a piece entitled, "Why the CAP finally fits." It is the strap that really gives the game away though: "With global famine looming, it's just as well we have returned to policies that encourage food production," writes Palmer.

It really is bizarre how both friend and foe get this wrong. The CAP never was an instrument for encouraging food production, and it is not now. It always was, primarily, a system for financing surpluses which were already inherent in agriculture before the CAP took effect.

Then, latterly, with successive "reforms" has it become an instrument for discouraging production and only recently – belatedly - have some of the incentives to limit production been slightly relaxed. Thus, it cannot be said, by any measure, that we have returned to policies that encourage food production. That is part of the problem.

Nevertheless, we do agree with Palmer's opening statement, where he writes:

The dramatic escalation of grain prices now feeding through into a wide range of other foodstuffs seems to have taken world leaders completely by surprise. This may also explain, though it certainly does not excuse, their almost complete lack of public response to the new danger of a global hunger pandemic.
That is indeed the case, both at local government level in Whitehall, and (especially) in Brussels where the response has been tardy and inadequate.

Predictably, though, Palmer thinks otherwise. He writes:

Although governments have been reluctant to talk publicly about the looming crisis of food inflation and outright food shortages, the European commission has proved quick to make drastic changes in the management of the (CAP). A year ago, the conventional wisdom was still that the CAP was irresponsibly generating European food surpluses that would then have to be dumped on world markets, undercutting farmers in poor countries in the process. This was, even then, a gross exaggeration: the EU's infamous grain, butter and meat mountains, like its milk and wine lakes, were long gone.

The commission has actually reversed policies designed to encourage farmers to take land out of production and, where possible, to use EU funds to protect the environment and make the countryside more accessible to visitors. During this coming year, farmers are being pressed to reconvert just about every square metre of farmland back to food production. Indeed higher world market prices now offer even smaller farmers genuine relief from years of falling living standards.
He then moves on to condemn the switch of land to biofuel output, adding the comment, "notably in north America", without mentioning the EU's attempt to impose a ten percent quota for biofuels throughout the member states.

And, of course, he puts much of our ailments down to "the global warming crisis", opining that, "the rapidly developing international tensions over energy security and the all-too-possible disaster of worldwide famine are intrinsic parts of the same challenge."

So it is that he thinks we should demand that our political leaders (starting with George Bush) publicly admit the seriousness of the situation. That, we are told, should be followed by a world summit, called by the UN and relevant global agencies, to launch an emergency plan to deal with the consequences of radical food price inflation and possible mass hunger.

In the meantime, concludes Palmer, "we should be grateful that the anti-CAP zealots in this country and others have failed to prevent a return to policies designed to encourage food production."

This really is a classic – even where the EU messes up big-time, it still gets plaudits from its fellow travellers – while the "eurosceptic" community remains silent. Yet, with this and the EU's obsession with global warming, we have in the making the biggest open goal in the history of the Union.

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