The Economist newspaper organised an international conference in early February on a subject which should be of interest to developing countries such as Sri Lanka. The subject of the conference was ‘Feeding the World’.
Making a statement at this conference, the WTO Director General Pascal Lamy made a very important point saying that food export restrictions by food exporting countries can “bring importing countries to their knees to plead for food security”.
Explaining how the “catastrophic” policies were at the heart of the food price spikes in 2008, the DG explained that government restrictions on exports were particularly damaging for products such as rice “where only seven per cent of global production is traded”.
Such export restrictions, he said, could have a chain reaction through panic buying and food hoarding.
He also referred to the effects of some countries offering high trade distorting subsidies and “some extraordinary tariff peaks,” which could have been disciplined under global rules had the Doha Round under the WTO been successfully concluded.
But with no signs of the Round seeing light of day in the foreseeable future, bringing discipline through such global trade rules might not be an immediate solution. He noted that by 2050, even if total farm output expanded by 60 per cent globally, it could still leave undernourished, four per cent of people in developing countries because they would not have access to the food they need either because they are unable to produce themselves or because they don’t have the necessary income to buy it.
He added that unequal access to food rather than inadequate production at global level was the root cause of hunger.
Africa is seen as a food security problem today, but “may very well hold the key to global food security tomorrow,” the WTO Chief observed, saying that the continent was the one with the greatest amount of arable land left uncultivated.
Noting that around 75 per cent of the world’s food insecure people live in rural areas, the FAO Chief who also spoke at the conference said that boosting productivity in these parts of the world was critical to overcoming hunger and ensuring that the neediest people are able to access food.
This conference took place at a time when the FAO reported that its food price index had risen by nearly two percent from December to January – the first such increase since last July. Prices of all commodity groups in the index registered gains with oils increasing the most followed by cereals, sugar, dairy products and meat, according to the FAO.
A senior economist of FAO had said that although different factors were at play in each commodity group, the new price rise “highlights the unpredictability prevailing in global food markets”.
Although public figures participated in this well-attended meeting, it was also noted that a very important sector – farmers – were not represented. While the conference may have become more meaningful had the farmers been represented, it did highlight the need to plan the future in order to avoid food insecurity.
As a food importing country subject to volatile prices and at the mercy of countries which could enforce export restrictions in times of food shortages, there is a need to plan for the future which is not only a few years from now. Encouragement must be given to the farmers to grow more food and reduce wastage with modern methods. If the farmer is made a partner in the consulting process, much can be learnt by policy in order to avoid situations like the plastic crate situation where frustrated farmers threw away their hard-earned income by destroying vegetables. If Africa will hold the key to food security in the future, then we need to have closer ties with that continent from now on. Africa has been a neglected area where our bilateral trade ties are concerned. A long-term plan for closer collaboration with the African continent could commence now in order to ensure food security for Sri Lanka in the future.
(Manel de Silva holds an Honours Degree in Political Science from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and has engaged in professional training in Commercial Diplomacy at ITC and GATT. She has served as a trade diplomat in several Sri Lankan Missions overseas and was the first female Head of the Department of Commerce as Director General of Commerce.)