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May 11, 2008

West's liberalization dogma leaves poor countries struggling for food

Since becoming a junior minister (UK), Mark Malloch Brown's fondness for speaking his mind has sometimes landed him in trouble. It has certainly got people's backs up. He does not show enough diplomacy or modesty, say some colleagues; he is too big for his Whitehall boots. The remarks he makes in today's paper are also bound to be controversial - but they show the UN's former deputy secretary general at his best, talking expertly about matters of serious concern.

Because there are few issues in the world economy more worrying at the moment than the rocketing price of food and, while Lord Malloch-Brown's former colleagues from the international agencies have been discussing it over the past few months, too few members of the British government have even begun to the address the problem.

A perfect storm is how Lord Malloch-Brown describes the problem, and he is absolutely right. There have been terrible harvests in countries such as Australia, rising demand over the longer term from the newly prosperous parts of developing giants China and India, and there has also been the great biofuels land grab.

Put the three together and you have the recipe for a doubling in the price of basics such as wheat, an expensive headache for rich countries and the cause of food riots in poor ones. In other respects, however, the minister is wrong. It may be that biofuels do not depress food production everywhere; but that does not make the EU's full-tilt encouragement of plant fuel any more justifiable.

The biofuels lobby are forever pointing to Brazil as a success, but that is to ignore all the other places where land that would have been used to help feed humans is being diverted to help fuel machines. One simple move Europe could make to alleviate the global food crisis would be to call a moratorium on the increased use of biofuels. The EU could withdraw its 2010 target for 5.75% of all petrol and diesel to be made from plants and bring it back in only when a new, more sustainable generation of biofuels is produced.

The other common error western politicians and officials make when discussing the food crisis is one of omission. Part of the reason why parts of Africa are going hungry now is because the west, through its expert development institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, advised poor governments to slash farming subsidies, produce cash crops for export and open up their markets. This liberalisation dogma, which came to be called the Washington consensus, has left many countries struggling to secure food supplies.

That hollowing out of poor countries' agriculture will have to be addressed over the longer term. The UN, through its World Food Programme, is already passing around the cap for emergency supplies for starvation zones; but the international community also needs to put renewed effort into devising means - through research and development, credit facilities and yes, straightforward subsidy - for Africa to have a green revolution like the one experienced in parts of Asia. Otherwise, the problem of food security stands no chance of being solved.

But while poor countries need help to make their agricultural sectors more productive, there is no excuse for rich countries to lock out food supplies through tariffs. Lord Malloch-Brown is quite right to take a swipe at those who defend the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP). France's farms minister, Michel Barnier, last month suggested that other regions ought to adopt the CAP model to guarantee food sufficiency.

Yet all the CAP's import tariffs do is make consumers pay more for domestically-sourced food. It is an indefensible system that denies farmers from poor countries outside Europe access to markets and much-needed income. If the EU wants to help developing countries, it should dismantle the CAP - and encourage African farmers to produce more. In dealing with a global crisis, agricultural nimbyism is not enough.

The Guardian

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