World food prices have risen at an extraordinary rate. What is driving such price rises?
World demand for food has outstripped world supply. The problem of supply has several different causes. First, productivity is very low still in Africa and some other poor regions. Second, climate shocks in Australia and in Europe and in some other grain producing areas. Also the diversion of food and feed production to biofuels and low inventory levels (the amount of food being stored) has played a part.
When world demand went up there were not large stocks of grain available and that meant that prices soared. Trade barriers thrown up by food exporting countries to keep prices low in their countries have sharply increased prices in food importing countries. Basically, the underlying challenge is that food demand has gone up sharply and food supply has not.
The UN Secretary-General has said rising food prices jeopardise the achievement of the Millennium Development goals to halve poverty by 2015. Do you agree?
Of course! The most important step is to increase food production in the poor regions. Most of these regions, and again I focus on Africa, have levels of food output that are only one half or one third of what they could be. The problem is that the farmers are so poor that they cannot afford good seeds, they cannot afford fertilizers, and they cannot afford irrigation. I believe that in order to overcome this crisis we need to help finance the supply side of farming in poor countries. This would increase production, drive down prices and also help to solve this emergency situation.
Europe's agricultural system has often been an issue in world trade talks. How can Europe contribute to resolving the food price crisis?
The most important thing that Europe can do is to provide quick funding to poor countries to help those countries increase their own food production. This to me is the number one step - very practical. When Malawi, for example, introduced a programme in 2005 so that every peasant farm in Malawi could get access to fertilisers and to high-yield seeds, that little country was quickly able to double food production from one season to the next and it has kept that high level of crop since then with this policy. That kind of policy costs budgetary funds because the government ensures the availability of basic inputs to farmers at the low price and that's where Europe could help by funding African governments so they could fund their own farmers to produce more food. This to me would be the number one step. A second related step of course - not as urgent but, I think, useful - is to reconsider biofuel policy, to only promote biofuels that don't compete with food supplies or with land where food can be grown.
Is the food price crisis one that can only be addressed by governments and big corporations, or can people contribute at an individual level?
I think in a very short term this is going to be a matter of government programs to reliably increase food supply in poor countries. Over time the way we live and our food habits play a role. Everybody knows that it takes 8 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of red meat. So by depending on meat in our diets we put a lot of pressure on the food system.
So I think that diets that are healthy for us, that have less red meat and more vegetables and more fish, which may require only 3 kilograms of feed, could be a better trade-off for the whole planet. But in the immediate crisis right now, I think the role we can play is to tell our governments that we don't want our policies to neglect the urgent needs of a billion hungry poor people; that we want to see Europe and the US and other governments helping farmers in poor countries to increase the food supply so that this crisis doesn't persist.
Further information :
Food and health crisis: Jeffrey Sachs urges pragmatic measures
Tuesday in plenary: Fear over food prices, 2006 budget, Galileo
MEPs debate rising food prices with World Food Programme Chief
UN Millennium Development Goals