UN promises to tackle world food crisis

Posted: 1 May 2008

The United Nations is aiming to have a comprehensive plan to tackle the global food crisis in place by the beginning of June, "around which the institutions and leaders around the world can coalesce," says Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes.

John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs
John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs
John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, speaking at the press conference. Photo UN.
Mr Holmes is one of two coordinators, along with UN System Influenza Coordinator David Nabarro, of a new high-powered task force that was announced by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to organize responses to the global rise in food prices.

Speaking at a news conference in Geneva in April 30, Mr Holmes said that although the breadth and complexity of the issue needed to be recognized, there was no need to panic. "I think it is clear we can fix these problems. The solutions can be found; the solutions are there. They are very difficult, some of them, in the short term, but they can be done."

The Under Secretary-General also said the crisis was not affecting every country in the same way. "For many countries and population groups it is inconvenient, a problem for their daily budget and their purses, but it is not a matter of life and death. In some places and for some groups, particularly those living on less than a dollar a day, that quickly could become a matter of life and death, or certainly of increased suffering and malnutrition."

Biofuels

On the role of biofuel production in the current crisis, Mr Holmes said: "It is something that needs a new look in present circumstances without wanting to fall in any sense into knee-jerk reactions of saying all biofuels are bad or good. We need to look at it in a careful, sophisticated and differentiated way, between different regions of the world and between different products."

Bioethanol plant
Bioethanol plant
Corn being unloaded from a railcar at an ethanol plant in Windsor, Colorado. The plant processes some 150 million litres of ethanol annually. Credit: NREL/Gerry Harrow
But earlier in the week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, had warned that the United States and the European Union have taken a "criminal path" by contributing to an explosive rise in global food prices through using food crops to produce biofuels.

Ziegler said that fuel policies pursued by the US and the EU were one of the main causes of the current worldwide food crisis. The Special Rapporteur has called for a five-year moratorium on the production of biofuels.

Mr Ziegler also said that speculation on international markets was behind 30 per cent of the increase in food prices. He said that companies such as Cargill, which controls a quarter of all cereal production, have enormous power over the market. He added that hedge funds are also making huge profits from raw materials markets, and called for new financial regulations to prevent such speculation.

The Special Rapporteur warned of worsening food riots and a "horrifying" increase in deaths by starvation before reforms could take effect.

Helping the poor

Meanwhile, a nutritionist with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said that "global price rises mean that food is literally being taken out of the mouths of hungry children whose parents can no longer afford to feed them."

Andrew Thorne-Lyman said that even temporarily depriving children of the nutrients they need to grow and thrive can leave permanent scars in terms of stunting their physical growth and intellectual potential. He said that families in the developing world are "finding their buying power has been slashed by food price rises, meaning that they can buy less food or food which isn't as nutritious."

Bangladesh: woman cleaning Chinese cabbage seed for next years crop. Credit: FAO
Bangladesh: woman cleaning Chinese cabbage seed for next years crop. Credit: FAO
Bangladesh: woman cleaning Chinese cabbage seed for next years crop. Credit: FAO
In a separate statement, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said that high food commodity prices called for a twin-track approach featuring policies and programmes to assist the millions of poor whose livelihoods were at risk, and steps to help farmers in the developing world take advantage of the new situation.

"We must produce more food where it is urgently needed to contain the impact of soaring prices on poor consumers, and simultaneously boost productivity and expand production to create more income and employment opportunities for the rural poor," Dr Diouf said.

"We have to ensure that smallholder farmers have proper access to land and water resources and essential inputs such as seeds and fertilisers. This will enable them to increase their supply response to higher prices, boosting their incomes, improving their livelihoods, and ultimately benefiting consumers as well."

The issue of food prices will be discussed on June 3-5 when world leaders meet in Rome to attend a High Level Conference on World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy. The UN's action plan is to be in place in time for this meeting.