The Risk-Monger

I feel that many of us are watching Revolution 2011 sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East in very much the same passive manner as we watch a weather report map. Our citizen journalists on the ground are sending tweets and our leaders are expressing concern, but there is very little analysis on the causes of such spontaneous combustion. Was it the after-shock of Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009? Was it a yearning for liberty that we are told we all share in our bosoms? Was it decades of corruption from tyrants who oppressed their people and mismanaged their economies? Is religion playing a role? “Probably” is an answer to all of the above, but still, the question should be asked: Why now and not five years ago? It couldn’t just be because of a Tunisian market trader. It’s food security stupid.

Do a Google search of “food prices + Egypt” and you will get a wide range of articles in the months of December and January showing how prices for basic foodstuffs had almost doubled. In comfortable cities like Brussels, food accounts for around 15-20% of an average middle-class income – so most of us can handle price increases. In developing countries this budget can rise to around 80% of monthly incomes. Double the food prices and hard decisions give rise to frustration. I believe this was the spark that ignited the tinderbox of long-term youth unemployment and inept, corrupt governments. Being under-employed is a slap in the face; not being able to feed your family is a shot in the gut. The media should have assessed this before sending their celebrity war correspondents to Saudi Arabia hoping that bricks would start flying (they did not see the subsidies).

Is this increase in food prices a short-term result of failed crops in Russia and China with the added ingredient of speculation? This is a dangerously convenient excuse from European policy-makers who cultivate with their heads in the sand. Add the land-grab that has reached alarming levels in Africa and Australia, the increased diet sophistication in emerging countries like China and India, residual biofuel ambitions and the primitive food and agricultural policies of the European Commission, and the European wishful thinking becomes irresponsible policy-making.

One more disturbing vector is the increasing occurrence of food export restrictions. Free trade in manufactured products is an easy sell as everyone can see a gain. Free trade in foodstuffs during a period of scarcity seems almost counter-intuitive so it was no surprise that Russia imposed controls. In Asia, rice is not just a grain, it is often food culture and a basic right. In reaction to the threat of rice export controls, an Indonesian minister recently told the BBC that if necessary, Indonesia would bring more land into agricultural production to ensure food security. Instead of more deforestation, shouldn’t we be looking for agricultural technology solutions? I cannot wait to see how Greenpeace twists this into their rain-forest campaigns given that these were (GMO-free) seeds sown of their own destructive mindset.

So the turmoil of food security is not simply due to a few failed crops and greedy investors. US corn reserves are at alarmingly low levels (at less than 5%) and only seem to be going lower. I often get lobbying students of mine preparing for graduate studies who ask me for advice in their concentration. Without hesitation, I tell them to pay attention to food security – that will be a long-term issue where we seem to lack sufficient expertise at the moment (or we just refuse to listen).

What has the European Commission done to address the global crisis in food security? CAP of course had been designed to reduce food production (very successfully as Europe now depends on other countries to feed its people), so rejigging the CAPs to increase production involves too many conflicting national interests (note how efforts to increase dairy production was quickly stymied in 2008). A quick scan of Commission websites shows very little concern or commitment to increasing food security. DG Sanco is arguing for more organic food production and more research into the safety of food production technologies. The main news stories on their website are about GMO risk management. There is a serious parade of stupid marching through Sanco and most of us are choosing to look away. DG Environment is preparing to use the precautionary principle to render pesticides obsolete (because we cannot be certain they are free from endocrine disrupting properties). Don’t even get me started on the EU biofuel fiasco which still has its resonations.

What the European Commission is doing is pure madness. Rather than committing resources and technologies to solving food security issues, they are aggravating it with primitive agricultural demands and ridiculous, reactionary food safety concerns. Rather than encouraging innovative agricultural technologies that can produce more food, more securely, on less land, they are forcing developing countries to cut down more forests and suffer shortages that could lead to increased poverty, famine and political instability. Far from being responsible global actors, European food policy-makers are lost in some suspended fantasy world.

As more developing country frustrations boil over into political instability, as global food stocks continue to fall and famines spring up with more frequency, I watch it passively (like the weather reports) wondering if someone in the Commission would have the sanity to stand up and say: Hey! It’s food security, stupid!

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