Who, Me?

The Global Food Security Summit is drawing to a close in Rome today and is expected to issue a compromise statement:

The merits of increasing biofuel production in the middle of a crisis over skyrocketing food prices was being hotly debated at a United Nations summit, but the top U.S. delegate said Wednesday that consensus on the issue was possible.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said on the second day of the three-day gathering of world leaders, U.N. food agencies, development banks and business representatives that progress was being made on determining the role of biofuels in food price hikes.

“It looks as though consensus on this important issue is in reach,” Schafer said in a statement.

He told reporters that he thought some “acceptable” language, apparently a compromise, on biofuels would be in the final summit document on Thursday.

There are compromises and there are compromises. A compromise in which the different parties each agree to surrender something they want to achieve a commonly-desired goal is one thing. A compromise in which each party returns home in the confidence that what they’ve been doing all along is right and with the intention of going right on doing it isn’t a compromise at all. It’s a cop-out.

I’ve heard some of the statements coming out of the summit. They’ve mostly been scatter-shot complaints blaming whatever food crisis exists on everything from biofuels production to obesity in rich countries to export restrictions. As an example here’s the communique from the UN Secretary-General and the Italian Prime Minister:

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and H.E. Prime Minister Berlusconi of Italy co-hosted a high-level working dinner with Heads of State, Heads of Government and ministers on 3 June on the occasion of the High-Level Conference on World Food Security from 3 to 5 June 2008 in Rome. The dinner saw the participation of more than 44 Governments representing donor countries, food-producing countries, and those affected by the current food crisis. In addition, eight heads of international organizations participated in the event. Discussions focused on some of the most pressing policy issues related to the current world food security crisis and its underlying causes, namely agricultural productivity, biofuels, and trade restrictions, the three themes of the high-level dinner.

The Secretary-General stressed the need for a collective and concerted effort of all concerned. He noted that all agree on the most important issues: the common challenge; the need to focus on the poorest; and the insufficiency of food production. He pointed out that the High-Level Task Force has presented recommendations that represent the collective thinking of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. He invited participants to discuss the themes of the high-level dinner: emergency needs; agricultural production; biofuels; and trade restrictions.

I wonder if the irony of a dinner in the interests of aiding the hungry is lost on them.

The problem with the formulation is that it places these three factors on an equal footing. Is that correct? Or it is just politically correct?

I’m completely in favor of the U. S. and the EU eliminating crop subsidies. And I’m in favor of eliminating subsidies here for ethanol production. But the notion that U. S. ethanol production is equivalent to bad trade policy or other bad government policies that somehow seem to have escaped the notice of the summit’s attendees as a cause of a food crisis is poppycock. Show me the numbers and, as you do so, remember one word: substitutability. Corn isn’t a substitute for rice. Yellow corn (the kind used to make ethanol) isn’t even a substitute for white corn (the kind used for making tortillas).

There are a host of other factors that need to be considered, too. What about Chinese agricultural subsidies? And what about the subsidies that many of the countries at greatest risk for hunger place on gasoline, which insulates its citizens from price fluctuations in oil and subsidizes wasteful practices?

I don’t want to be coddled, mollified, or made to feel better. If what I’m doing is a problem I want to know about it. I think we owe the rest of the world the same courtesy.

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