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Crisis Confab in Rome

A long-winded conference with an unwieldy name results in lots of language and a “framework for action”—and a few promises for African aid.

ROME—Will the spike in food prices lead countries to change the way they handle food and agricultural policy? In terms of providing food aid and development assistance for Africa and a few other poor places, yes. In terms of domestic agriculture, biofuels, and trade policy for richer countries, no.


Anti-hunger activists and government officials in some countries had been hoping that the three-day confab here with the long-winded name—the United Nations High-Level Conference on World Food Security and the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy—would result in at least three outcomes: massive commitments of money for food aid and development assistance; a U.N. position opposing corn-based ethanol; and a strong statement on the export bans that some developing nations have put on rice and other staples to keep prices low in their own countries.

But the conference had been planned a year ago by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization as an event to discuss climate change and biofuels issues long-term. When food prices soared, the meeting became a de facto crisis summit that attracted leaders ranging from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and more than 900 journalists. Perhaps expectations rose too high.

Over the three days, the attendees—they were not delegates, there were no votes, and there were no calls for pledges of money—promised to provide food or cash for hungry people hit hard by the high food prices and to help bring African farmers into the 21st century. But the matter of greatest discussion was a “comprehensive framework for action” paper that is to serve as a guide “to address the food crisis, to meet immediate needs, and [to] contribute to sustainable food security.” The framework was written by a task force composed of the heads of the U.N. food agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.


For some countries, including the United States, keeping certain language out of that paper became as important as what would go into it. The result was a document that did not take a tough stance on either biofuels or the export bans.

The world leaders here also didn’t always agree on the nature of the crisis. In his opening statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Food production needs to rise by 50 percent by the year 2030 to meet the rising demand.” But it seemed clear from most of the discussions that the current crisis is more about food prices, not availability.

Josette Sheeran, a former Bush administration official who is executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, said several times that she had been in marketplaces where there was food but people had no money to buy it. In some countries, Sheeran said, the WFP has begun providing vouchers that are much like U.S. food stamps.

As the conference opened, the Saudi Arabians gave Sheeran the last of the $775 million she needs to operate WFP programs this year in the face of vastly higher food prices. Sheeran also praised the Canadians for giving her cash, which will allow her to issue more food vouchers. But she noted that when she does need food, she still has to go to the United States, the European Union, Canada, and Australia to buy it. Those countries are the big producers and, unlike some developing nations, have not imposed export bans. That position takes some of the heat off the United States, which is continuing its practice of requiring that its WFP donations be used almost exclusively to buy U.S.-grown food.


Food and Agriculture Organization Director General Jacques Diouf said that the developing world needs $30 billion annually to eradicate hunger and that it was “incomprehensible” that $11 billion to $12 billion in U.S. ethanol subsidies were diverting 100 million tons of cereals from human consumption “mostly to satisfy a thirst for fuels for vehicles.” But Schafer, E.U. officials, and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva all defended biofuels vigorously, if for different reasons. Schafer emphasized that biofuels can produce energy in rural areas and bring prosperity. Lula, having decided that “the sugarcane Brazil uses to produce ethanol is not food,” declared, “I am not in favor of producing ethanol from corn or other food crops. I doubt that anyone would go hungry to fill up their car’s fuel tank.”

This article appears in the June 7, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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