Thomas Malthus, the 18th-century cleric, must be chuckling in his grave. As world leaders gather in Rome for the UN summit on hunger, his grim prediction that humanity faced a future of rising food prices and mounting malnutrition has finally arrived at the center of the international agenda. Unfortunately, the summit itself has all the hallmarks of a sideshow to the real crisis in malnutrition.
Maize and rice have almost doubled in price over the past year. In Britain, higher food prices cause pain on the high street. For the roughly 1 billion people living on less than $1 a day, many of whom spend 80 percent or more of their income on food, they threaten malnutrition and ill-health. The impact of rising food prices on vulnerable populations is real.
In countries such as Bangladesh, Haiti, Nigeria and Ghana it is already driving up poverty levels. But the panic is diverting attention from some other unpalatable truths.
One of those truths is that world leaders have been turning a blind eye to the real hunger crisis for too long. Each year, some 3.5 million children lose their lives as a direct result of malnutrition. Around a third of children in developing countries aged under 5 have their minds and bodies impaired by hunger.
Some of the plans under discussion in Rome are sensible palliatives for higher food prices. The $1.2 billion facility proposed by the World Bank President Robert Zoellick for investment in social safety nets, rapid delivery of seeds and fertilizers for small farmers, and balance-of-payments support to help poor countries manage higher food import costs makes sense. What is missing is a concerted effort to tackle the real drivers of the crisis.
The $7 billion spent annually in the US in federal subsidies for maize-based biofuels has brought windfall gains for American farmers, with zero benefits for reduced carbon emissions. The diversion of maize from international markets accounts for around one-third of the international price increase. The flipside of the subsidy fest in the midwest is higher food prices for slum dwellers in Ghana and Haiti.