Outside column: Remember summer's world food crisis?

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2008

With all eyes focused on the global financial crisis, it's not surprising that many of us have forgotten all about another calamity that preoccupied world capitals just a few months ago. Remember the world food crisis?

For much of this year, presidents, prime ministers, the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other institutions strategized and fulminated about the sharp rise in food prices that pushed 100 million people worldwide into abject poverty.

The West rushed foodstuffs to Africa and Asia. As recently as last summer, demand for help remained so high that the World Food Program began running low on grains, cereals and other foods in several parts of the world. Program officers started talking about serious cutbacks.

Oh, the difference just a few weeks makes. Several days ago, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, generally known as the F.A.O., issued a new alert that sounded discordant to anyone who tuned out of the food-crisis debate after last summer.

The problem now, it said, is that food prices "have fallen farther and faster than anyone expected, in excess of 50 percent from their recent peaks."

Doesn't that mean the food crisis is resolved? Good news, right - especially at Thanksgiving, a celebration of favorable harvests. Well, it seems we live in a season when every bit of good news is offset with warnings of dire consequences.

The sharp drop in oil prices, as an example, is a marvelous development when we stop to fill up our cars. But with it comes grave warnings that low prices will drive up demand, increase America's dependence on foreign oil, reduce the determination to find alternative energy sources and hasten the day when the world's oil wells will have been sucked dry. Just last week, the International Energy Agency warned that the planet's major oil fields are declining faster than had been expected.

Getting back to food, "the price bubble popped, but that does not mean the crisis is over," noted Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

As it turns out, prices are falling so far, so fast, that in a few months' time, the F.A.O. forecasts, the world may face severe shortages. Economists are saying this is perfectly predictable, maybe even inevitable. As the price of cereals, for example, drops to the floor, farmers "may be less willing to expand or even keep up production next year," the F.A.O. says. And tight credit makes it hard to buy seeds and supplies.

What is more, if the world falls into a "deep recession, even depression, then demand will contract even more," von Braun told me.

All of these are macro-economic concerns. But at the end of the pipeline, the victims are real people who live in irremediable poverty. I met one of them in rural Cambodia a few weeks ago.

Cha Veun lives in Bon Skol, population 679, about 100 miles west of the Vietnam border. She and her family of four live on a raised platform, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet, with no walls and a palm-frond roof that leaks during the rainy season. She has no electricity, no running water, no telephone, no toilet. In fact, she has no obvious possessions, not even a toothbrush. But then, she has no teeth. And, like millions of people around the world in poor countries with indifferent governments, she could wait forever for her government to step in with help.

"I want them to help me, but it hasn't happened."

World leaders pay attention to food shortages only when the problems grow into global crises. Perhaps they should step out of their marble mansions now and then to see how people like Cha live.

When before do you remember the president of the United States, for example, stepping forcefully into a debate about these problems? The last time I recall was when President Lyndon Johnson visited Martin County, Ky., the heart of Appalachia, to launch his War on Poverty.

That was 1964. Almost half a century ago.

• Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times.

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