The world food crisis seems to have caught political leaders and even specialists in the field off guard. First caned a "silent tsunami," it is no longer silent. Many countries, including some that are critically important for regional and global stability, have already seen unrest and even food riots.
Several causes of the crisis stand out: growing food consumption in rapidly developing China and India; increased demand for biofuels like ethanol, mostly made of grain; and changes in weather conditions caused by global warming and water shortages.
The first is an inescapable trend, and we must rejoice that hundreds of millions of people are pulling themselves out of poverty and can afford decent food. Our planet is quite capable of feeding them: experts estimate that with existing agricultural technologies, global production should be enough for 8 billion people.
The main reasons for the sudden crisis are man-made, resulting from action or inaction by politicians.
Were they not warned about global warming and the need for measures to fight it and adjust to it? Production of ethanol was presented as an environmentally beneficial way to reduce dependency on oil. But it was not carefully thought through, and the result has been ironic: taxpayers in a number of countries subsidize the conversion of grain into ethanol, thus reducing food resources. This creates a vicious circle, which proves once again that there are no simple solutions or magic wands.
The director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, was right to point out recently that the crisis had been building up for decades and was the result of "inappropriate policies over the past 20 years." While aid to agriculture in developing countries was cut in half between 1990 and 2000, the industrialized world maintained generous subsidies for its own farmers. So that's the way it is: let "them" sink or swim on the waves of the free market while "our people" will get help.
Now that the food crisis is with us and in all likelihood here to stay two things need to be done. First, emergency measures must be taken. Second, lessons must be learned and directed toward long-term action.
As the situation evolves, will nations follow the principle of "every man for himself' or will they finally show the strength and ability to work together and act effectively?
The answer is not yet clear. Some food-producing countries have already imposed limits on export to keep prices down and avoid popular anger. That is an understandable reaction, but over the long term it won't work. Solutions are needed at an international level.
The U.N. secretary-general recently convened a meeting of the heads of 27 international organizations to coordinate the response of the world community. A special task force was created, which is a good first step. Wealthy countries have allocated about half a billion dollars for urgent food aid, not a lot of money, but still a beginning.
The agenda of the G-8 summit meeting to be held in Japan in early July has been revised: Japan's prime minister has proposed discussing the "threat of hunger and malnutrition" in the world.
The global civil society is also pitching in, with nongovernmental humanitarian organizations offering aid.
That's all well and good, but I still wonder what is being done by the Security Council, which according to the U.N. Charter "bears primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security." Is the threat to peace and stability not seen from the East River U.N. building?
"I am surprised," Diouf said, "that I have not been summoned to the U.N. Security Council" to report urgently on the situation. The diplomats there seem too used to working as a fire brigade that responds to crises that have already degenerated into hostilities. That, of course, is necessary work, but developing preventive measures is even more important. When the situation blows up, with the number of hungry migrants swelling as nations fight for water, it will be too late.
Why is it, one wonders, that while national parliaments hold hearings on urgent problems, mobilizing all available expertise and inching toward solutions, the same is not happening at the international level?
The Security Council has not yet become a policy-making center that could focus the minds of world leaders on the real problems, the real priorities rather than the skewed set of priorities that we see today.
Once again, it all comes down to distorted priorities. It is up to the Security Council to correct the world's system of priorities and adapt it to the new challenges. It is imperative to start now, without waiting for the reform of the Council, which is of course necessary. While it is true that the absence of major countries like India, Brazil, Japan, Germany and South Africa from the group of permanent members is wrong and must be corrected, and that the Council's purview should include economic and environmental security, why not change the agenda and begin by bringing those countries into the discussion now?
The problem is inertia. But the food crisis has reminded us once again that inertia kills.
That inertia will keep generating new crises and producing emergencies. It is past time for world leaders to start developing preventive mechanisms. Such mechanisms have been proposed, but the proposals are being shot down by those who like to talk about the ineffectiveness of the U.N. while doing everything to sideline the world organization.