US urges food output boost to avert unrest
By Javier Blas in Cison di Valmarino, Italy
Published: April 19 2009 13:42 | Last updated: April 19 2009 22:33
The US agriculture secretary has warned that unless countries take immediate steps to sharply boost agricultural productivity and food output and reduce hunger, the world risks fresh social instability.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Tom Vilsack indicated that food security and global stability were tied, in a sign that Washington’s worries about the global food crisis go well beyond its humanitarian implications.
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“This is not just about food security, this is about national security, it is about environmental security,” he said on the sidelines of the first meeting of the Group of Eight ministers of agriculture. Although the US has in the past talked about the links, Barack Obama, US president, and his team have made it a priority, officials said.
Last year’s spike in food prices caused riots in about 30 countries, from Haiti to Bangladesh. Leading agricultural commodity exporters, including India and Argentina, imposed bans on overseas sales of food products. “I can figure out there are only three things that could happen if people do not have food: people could riot, that they have done; people migrate to places where there is food, which creates additional challenges; or people die,” said Mr Vilsack.
The G8 meeting, which ends on Monday, is expected to release a communiqué highlighting a political consensus to raise global food output and investment in developing countries.
A draft of the communiqué said the world was “very far from reaching” the United Nations’ goal of halving the number of people facing chronic hunger by 2015, in the clearest admission yet by leading countries of the failure. This came after the group reviewed what it called “alarming data” on malnourishment. The UN told ministers that for the first time more than 1bn people went hungry every day and that this was set to rise this year due because of persistently high food prices and the economic crisis.
Despite Mr Vilsack’s comments, the communiqué is not expected to produce any concrete measures or financial initiatives to resolve in the short-term the problems he highlighted.
The charity Oxfam called the meeting “another nail in the coffin of the goal to reduce world hunger”.
Mr Vilsack said the G8 countries realised food security needed to become “an issue that is front and central in international discussions”, but he played down chances of a breakthrough to resolve the problem. Officials and delegates said the group was focused on creating a “framework” to resolve the problem and that the first meeting was a sign of progress.
The draft of the communiqué reflected that consensus, saying “more should be done to increase the quantity and enhance the quality of agricultural production and enable all citizens to have economic and physical access to safe and nutritious food”.
It also warned that “structural factors may underpin [higher food] prices over the medium term, and that increased volatility and demand raise important questions about food security for the future”.
The group had a preliminary accord to call for “well functioning” markets and international trade “as a means of improving food security”.
Mr Vilsack said the challenge to boost output to feed the world’s population – expected to reach 9bn by 2050 from today’s 6.5bn – was compounded by climate change. For that reason, he called on the G8 to back the use of science in agriculture, including genetically modified organisms, to boost productivity.
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