Sunday, May 18, 2008

Food, Demand and For Profit Global Predators

For those of us trying desperately to understand the details relating to the worlds food shortage and how we got to this point, a NY Times story, “World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut” contains a few clues, which I have edited down here. I’m left to wonder what the World Banks former president, Paul Wolfowitz did or didn’t do to help this disaster reel out of control.

“The budgets of institutions that delivered the world from famine in the 1970s, including the rice institute, have stagnated or fallen, even as the problems they were trying to solve became harder. Agricultural experts have complained about the flagging efforts for years and warned of the risks. ‘Nobody was listening,’ said Thomas Lumpkin, director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.”

"With demand beginning to outstrip supply, prices have soared, and food riots have erupted that have undermined the stability of foreign governments. But cuts in agricultural research continue. The United States is in the midst of slashing, by as much as 75 percent, its $59.5 million annual support for a global research network that focuses on improving crops vital to agriculture in poor countries. The United States cut its support for agriculture in poor countries to $624 million from $2.3 billion. The center in Mexico has created drought-tolerant corn for Africa and higher-yielding, disease-resistant wheat for South Asia. But it does not have the money to get the varieties into the hands of poor farmers.”

“With Europe and the United States offering their farmers heavy subsidies that encouraged production, grain became abundant worldwide, and prices fell. Many poor countries, instead of developing their own agriculture, turned to the world market to buy cheap rice and wheat.”

Take note of this short sighted neo-liberal comment from a Reagan administration genius.

“In 1986, Agriculture Secretary John Block called the idea of developing countries feeding themselves ‘an anachronism from a bygone era,’ saying they should just buy American.”

“Advocates for agriculture fought a losing battle to stop the cutbacks — nowhere more than in the World Bank, the huge institution in Washington that makes low-interest loans to poor countries for development projects. Adjusted for inflation, the World Bank cut its agricultural lending to $2 billion in 2004 from $7.7 billion in 1980. At the World Bank, agricultural financing has begun to recover. Under a new president, Robert B. Zoellick, the bank has decided to double its lending for such programs in Africa.”

Former World president Paul Wolfowitz is not referenced in this article, so it would be premature to draw any conclusions about his contribution to the current food price hikes and shortages. But his mere presence is enough to set off alarms.

The point is, the global economic rules were written and executed by for profit interests with little concern for any possible consequences. Over 70 percent of the money the U.S. spends on supplying food to the world goes to private interests who store and ship the goods, short changing the people who need to eat. Europe has for years given cash to needy countries to spend on agriculture and technology. It's time we follow suit.

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