It is a crisis of almost biblical proportions. With almost one billion people living with permanent hunger, ministers from the world's largest producers and consumers of food meet in Italy this weekend to avert a permanent food crisis on an unprecedented scale. A report prepared by the G8 for its first ever Food Summit meeting warns of "structural" problems in world food markets that risk war and famine – unless food output is doubled in 20 years: "Immediate interventions" are required.
This weekend the first meeting of the G8's agriculture ministers will be held in the north Italian province of Treviso. They will be joined by their counterparts from Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, Australia and Egypt. Food security and measures to boost farming output will be at the top of their agenda.
Although global food prices have fallen sharply since their peaks last year, some by much as 40 to 50 per cent, they are beginning to creep up again and remain extremely high by historical standards – around double their level a decade ago. Moreover, some local food prices have seen a very rapid rise in recent months, a combination of the rise in world prices, but more powerfully driven by movements in currencies and local trade policies. "While food prices have fallen internationally, in developing countries they have not fallen so fast, or at all," comments Liliana Balbi, a senior economist with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Over recent years there have been food riots in more than 30 countries, from Mexico to Senegal, and from Bangladesh to Haiti – a sign of more troubles to come, within and between countries. In the UK, food prices are about 10 per cent higher than last year, pushed up by the strong pound.
However, it is among the world's poorest communities that the pain of high and rising food prices will be felt most intensely. Food represents about 10 to 20 per cent of consumer spending in industrialised nations, but as much as 60 to 80 per cent in developing countries, many of which are net food importers.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation says that 963 million people, or about 15 per cent of the world's population, are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. So-called "hidden hunger" – survival on a very limited diet eating the same food almost every day without sufficient vitamins and minerals – affects more than 2 billion people. About 100-140 million children suffer from vitamin A and D deficiency, says the FAO.
Inexorably rising populations are the most powerful single pressure pushing food prices higher. The world population is increasing at a rate of 80 million a year, and will rise from its current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050, stabilising in the year 2200 at about 10 billion people. As we become more prosperous we demand more varied and protein-heavy diets – chicken with our rice – which tend to be a less efficient use of land, water and fertiliser. Competition for land for other uses – growing biofuel crops and human settlement – is also a factor. Climate change and deforestation are long-term threats to the stability of food supplies, threatening more freak weather and crop failures, such as was seen in China last year. Water shortages promise to become more acute, and an additional source of friction between nations sharing rivers and lakes.
Some nations have already taken extraordinary steps to secure food supplies. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states have been in talks with Egypt, Pakistan, Ukraine, Sudan, Turkey, Yemen, South Africa, the Philippines and Thailand to buy or rent land. The South Korean Daewoo conglomerate even took a 99-year lease on half of Madagascar's arable land, which destabilised the government there until it was scrapped.
This worries many. James Bolger, chairman of the World Agricultural Forum and a former prime minister of New Zealand, described the G8 meeting on agriculture as "hugely" significant. Political unity on agriculture was critical to avoid "random efforts by individual countries to secure their own food security", he added.
The G8 Food Summit is unlikely to see any major breakthroughs. However, there will be progress on the "global partnership" on farming and food security framed by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and endorsed at last year's G8 summit in Japan. Specifically we should see more details on a plan to create a global grain reserve to improve supply stability – low stocks were an important factor in creating the recent food price spike.
Agreement should be reached on increasing aid to poorer nations, as the FAO wants. That will mean more investment in crop technologies, improving irrigation and training – all with a view to raising productivity. The "green revolution" in the 1960s helped to save the world from a Malthusian disaster then; campaigners hope that G8 moves now, at a time of more moderate population growth, will alleviate the pressure in years to come. President Barack Obama has asked Congress to double US aid for food security in poor countries to $1bn in 2010.
As with the recent G20 Summit, a commitment to complete the Doha round of trade talks will be made, though a successful conclusion seems a distant prospect.
The stakes in Italy this weekend could scarcely be higher. The G8's civil servants have already warned ministers that wars could follow failure: "serious consequences, not merely on business relations but equally on social and international relations, which in turn will impact directly on the security and stability of world politics".
Agriculture is usually one of the more junior postings in a cabinet. But the challenges facing Hillary Benn and his colleagues are just as formidable as those facing their better-known colleagues from treasuries and economics ministries. Indeed, it may not be too dramatic to say that they will be trying to defeat no less a set of enemies than the four horsemen of a modern apocalypse – pestilence, war, famine and death.