George Negus interviews academic, Dr Raj Patel about the global food crisis and what can be done to fix it.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008 - 09:48

George Negus interviews academic, Dr Raj Patel about the global food crisis and what can be done to fix it.

Patel is a fellow at the Institute of Food Development policy in California and has recently published the book 'Stuffed and Starved'.




So why is so much of the world suddenly going hungry? Dr Raj Patel is a fellow at the Institute of Food Development policy in California, he is the author of a recent book about the food crisis with the catchy title 'Stuffed and Starved' and George Negus spoke with him in the San Francisco-based Dr Patel before he left Australia last week.

GEORGE NEGUS: Dr Patel, if the stats can be believed the price of rice, wheat, corn and other basic food stuffs has either doubled or trebled in the last year or so. And as a result of that, we are now seeing these food riots all over the world, almost. How the heck did we get ourselves into this state and is there any one thing we can point to, to cause it?

RAJ PATEL, FOOD ANALYST AND AUTHOR: There are five reasons why this has all come together at the same time. Firstly the price of oil, being - well, at the moment it's higher than US$115 a barrel. The reason that matters is because for every calorie we eat it usually takes about a calorie of fossil fuel to be able to produce it, you know, not just the shipping but fertiliser as well. So when the price of oil goes up the price of food does too.
Then you've got increased demand for meat, particularly in developing countries, and that means that grain gets diverted from the people who can only afford to eat grain and into the bellies of livestock. Then on top of that you've had the bad harvest, of course, as you've seen in Australia, and on top of that you've got biofuels, which is a preposterous idea. I mean, it was something that was conceived as a sort of answer to climate change, but has been proven to be a very, very bad idea and yet it continues, particularly here in America, where it's perceived as sort of a boon to the national economy to be able to burn American corn rather than Saudi oil. Then of course, there is the financial speculation. So you've got those five reasons all happen at the same time.

GEORGE NEGUS: Right, so they've all come together, as you say. I guess the question we novices would ask is should have we seen it coming, was there something that we should have been doing that we weren't doing to avoid this situation, which now you and others are calling dire and the word 'crisis' just falls off our lips every time the word 'food' comes up - should have we seen it coming?

RAJ PATEL: It's not unusual in history to have fluctuations in the price in food and there will be fluctuations in the availability of food. But what's changed recently - and the past 30 years has been the sort of trajectory of this - is that slowly the supports, the buffers in between an economy and the international price - those buffers have been eroded. So under the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, developing economies in particular have been denied the sort of thing that the European Union and US have. They've been denied farm supports and they are being denied grain storage and they're denied sort of sustainable agricultural supports. And actually, farmers in developing countries have been saying, crying - warning of this danger for over 20 years, but the trouble is, of course, no-one listened to that.

GEORGE NEGUS: Right, I know it's hard to point the finger at particular people or even particular institutions but you were pretty rough on Robert Zoellick and the World Bank. You said it's hard to listen to the head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, on this issue without gagging. I mean, is he the villain in the piece or are you being a bit too critical?

RAJ PATEL: Well, I mean, there's no one villain that is able to - that one can say, if it weren't for this bloke then we would be fine. But Robert Zoellick I find particularly distasteful because he was the United States trade representative, the US's representative at the World Trade Organisation and now he is the head of the World Bank and he's sort of carried his mission across. And his mission is to liberalise, to enforce the kind of policies that got us into this mess in the first place. And what I find particularly repugnant is the fact that he's using this crisis as an excuse to argue for more trade liberalisation. But of course, the economies that are worst affected by these riots are the ones that are liberalised the most, the ones that are most exposed to the will of the market. They've got very little else to liberalise, and they are paying the price for it right now, and for Zoellick this is just another opportunity to push his agenda further. So yeah, I find it very distasteful.

GEORGE NEGUS: You've used some very colourful examples. I mean, you've said that food prices are really just toppling people into straightforward hunger and famine. In Haiti, for instance, you've said that people are eating mud cakes in order to keep hunger pains at bay, that's how dire the situation is, but others have said that Haiti is just the tip of the iceberg, there maybe other people literally eating dirt to stay alive.

RAJ PATEL: Tragically, I think that's true, and a part of the reason is this. In a good year like last year, the year before, we had 850 million people going hungry, this was without all the food crisis, without the current sort of word of 'panic' and apocalyptic discussions that we are having at the moment. 850 million people is a lot, and they were just teetering on the edge of what looks like a crisis now, and it's taken this sort of, this jolt of the price shock to tip people right into that hunger. So I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were other parts of the world where people are forced to eat mud cakes, where people are absolutely at their wits end and I don't think we should expect - I mean, we should certainly expect to see more in the way of food riots as well.

GEORGE NEGUS: Right, is there an easy solution, or is it going to take, as Robert Zoellick himself said, maybe 2015 before we get anywhere with this? He talks about seven lost years. I mean, it's a hard road to hoe that we've got ahead of us.

RAJ PATEL: Well, yeah, but I think in the short term there are things we can do, we can certainly ensure that countries that look like they're in a food crisis get to be able to buy grain within their region. One of the reasons that farmers are being driven out of business in these developing country economies is that when there is a crisis, food aid comes from Kansas, it comes from the United States, it gets shipped halfway around the world, and when you bring food aid into an economy it wipes out the farmers who are there. But in the medium and long term, I think things like grain stores, like support for sustainable agriculture that involves zero fossil fuels, I think those kinds of policies are possible and they have been done very quickly in terms of a crisis. I mean, Cuba was able to institute these kinds of policies very quickly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it only took them two years, and I think that offers hope for the rest of the world.

GEORGE NEGUS: Doctor, do you agree with Geoffrey Sacks, another well-known economist and adviser to the UN Secretary-General, a lot of other things. He's now suggesting that not only this is a food crisis, it could become a political crisis if governments, if they don't respond to the crisis and to the riots that we are now seeing.

RAJ PATEL: Well, yeah, I think he is right and what he omits is that the reason these governments are in the dire position they are in is because they have been forced over the past 20 to 30 years to implement these policies that Robert Zoellick has been pushing, and they've always been very unpopular with their people. But governments have had to do these policies because if they don't, they don't get money from the World Bank, so the World Bank has with it an incentive to be antidemocratic. So it's not surprising then that right now whe is a crisis people don't trust their democracies, they don't trust their elected representative will listen to them, because in the past they have done a very poor job of that.

GEORGE NEGUS: We can't help wondering whether or not the international community is actually responding seriously enough to this situation, and I guess the other irony is that it's been shoved off the world's agenda by our preoccupation with climate change. Can we bring these two things together somehow?

RAJ PATEL: Yes, two of the - well, actually more than two of the reasons that we have this price shock is a climate change related - certainly this biofuels debate that does transfer grain and land out of food production and into fuels. I mean, that's a specious remedy to climate change, but it's been touted as such. And luckily the European Union is taking this quite seriously and previously they were quite gunhoe about biofuels, but now they are retreating from that position.
The only place really that's taking it very, very seriously in the developed World, is the United States, and the only reason that's happening is because it's an election year here, and all the presidential candidates want the votes of the farmers in the Midwest. But certainly that climate change angle is also hovering over the fact that the way we grow food is so ridiculously dependent on the use of fossil fuel. I think that one of the best solutions to climate change is shifting away from the kind of agriculture we use at the moment, very fossil fuel intensive. So I think, you know, there are solutions, there are ways forward here, but it's going to take political will to implement them.

GEORGE NEGUS: Well, Doctor, at least the fact that we are talking together about it now means that it isn't any longer a case of "crisis, what crisis?" But thank you very much for talking to us.

RAJ PATEL: It's a pleasure, George.

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