Leading article: A missed opportunity to feed the world

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The Independent Online

Despite some furious final-day haggling, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation summit in Rome looked destined to end last night with the usual platitudinous declarations of concern from delegates.

The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon declared that there was an increasing sense of urgency from the world about the need to deal with the food crisis. But warm words such as these cannot conceal that this summit has utterly failed to address some of the most serious underlying causes of rising global food prices.

It is true that, thanks to the meeting, the World Food Programme has been given an additional $3bn of emergency food aid. And the Islamic Development Bank has promised to deliver $1.5bn to help farmers in some of the poorest countries increase production. But considering that the conference was informed that up to $20bn a year in aid pledges would be necessary to create another 1960s-style "green revolution" in the developing world, these sums are hardly cause for great celebration.

The delegates also failed to agree on a common way forward with regard to bio-fuels. President Lula da Silva's impassioned defence of Brazil's bio-fuels programme at the meeting is understandable. His country has historically relied on ethanol from sugar cane as a necessary substitute for expensive gasoline. But the Western world's dash in recent years for bio-fuels is not a result of necessity, but choice. The reason the United States and the EU have mandated massive bio-fuel growing programmes is that it is more politically convenient to pay farmers to produce crops for fuel than it is to encourage drivers to conserve fuel. Meanwhile, it is the world's poor who suffer as ever more of the world's productive land is devoted to growing fuel, rather than food.

Bio-fuel producers claim that the crops have had only a 2 to 3 per cent impact on this year's price hikes. But the picture is very different when it is broken down into individual crops. While bio-fuel production has had a negligible impact on the price of rice and wheat, bio-fuel cultivation has been responsible for up to a third of the increases in the price of corn and seed oil.

The summit has also failed to address the subsidies and tariffs systems that distort global agriculture markets and heavily penalise small farmers in developing countries. Some 850 million people on earth are already chronically hungry and higher prices have pushed 100 million more people around the world to the brink of malnutrition. Yet still the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and the United States' Farm Bill remain sacrosanct in the eyes of the rich world.

Developing nations such as India and Vietnam have themselves imposed export controls on rice of late. This is undoubtedly making the crisis worse. But the governments of these nations, however misguidedly, are acting out of a fear that their populations will starve unless they curb food exports. The rich world does not even have this feeble justification for agricultural protectionism.

The way to solve the global food price emergency is to invest heavily in agricultural production in poor countries through UN agencies, eliminate rich world farm subsidies and impose a moratorium on recently established bio-fuel programmes (at least until global production rises enough to fill the gap). As Sir John Holmes, the UN official co-ordinating a special task force on the food crisis, told delegates this week: "This is not rocket science. We know what to do, now we just need to do it." Scandalously, this summit has broken up with its participants only apparently resolved for inaction.