Opinion

EU has solutions to food crises in its grasp

17.10.12 @ 09:58

  1. By Robbie Blake

BRUSSELS - Tuesday's (16 October) World Food Day took place against the backdrop of a looming food crisis - the third in five years.

  • Biofuels put car drivers in Europe in competition for crops against the world's poorest people (Photo: Oscar Caos)

Agriculture chiefs meeting in Rome this week must see that repeated food crises are no coincidence. They have clear root causes that need to be addressed. But it is in our hands. Choices made in Europe will either aggravate or alleviate future food crises, including three significant decisions being made imminently.

Droughts in the US and Eastern Europe this summer have sparked sharp peaks in global food prices – which rose by 10 percent in July compared to a year earlier.

Staple commodities hit record highs in August and September (maize and wheat were up 25% and soybean oil up 17%). But, these deadly fluctuations cannot be blamed only on bad weather.

Policy choices have created the conditions for a 'perfect storm' of increasing demand in tight and more volatile food markets. Financial speculation on food, diversion of food crops to biofuels for cars, and rising demand for animal feeds for meat, mean that higher and increasingly unstable food prices is fast becoming the new norm.

When global prices rise suddenly, more people go hungry.

An estimated 44 million people were pushed into poverty when high prices last struck in 2010, with women and children hit hardest. Sudden food price rises in 2008 sparked riots in dozens of countries – a scenario which the United Nations warns could be repeated if staple foods, such as maize and wheat, jump again.

As agriculture ministers meet to discuss the next food crisis, the EU is about to take some momentous decisions that could either avert future crises, or make them worse.

Firstly, the European Commission is proposing to cap biofuels made from food: this is not enough and European leaders should insist they be slashed to zero. Almost half of all maize grown in the US, and 60 percent of rapeseed in Europe, is now being burned in cars.

This is when research shows most biofuels actually accelerate, rather than lessen, climate change. Biofuels pit the world's hungry against relatively affluent motorists in competition for crops: it’s clear it is drivers who are winning.

Secondly, EU ministers and the European Parliament are about to vote on proposals that could rein in excessive food speculation.

Financial speculation on food prices - when banks and hedge funds reap huge profits from betting on food prices - drives up prices and volatility, and must be curbed.

The revision of a financial regulation, the EU Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, provides a unique opportunity to end this deadly trade. But, the text is currently too weak and full of loopholes.

Unless these failings in the regulation are fixed, and limits placed on the share of the food commodity markets an investor can hold, harmful speculation will continue to fuel devastating price volatility and hunger.

Thanks to public pressure a number of banks, such as Deutsche Bank and Raiffeisen, have voluntarily withdrawn from food speculation. Now politicians must follow suit.

And lastly, agriculture ministers and the European Parliament are about to agree on a reform of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy.

We currently import massive amounts of soy and maize from the Americas to feed European factory farms. We need to reduce this demand by cutting industrial meat production and feeding farm animals grass and local crops, such as beans and peas.

Farmers need to be supported to grow protein plants and rotate their crops as part of a move to a greener model of agriculture.

This should be complemented with initiatives to encourage people to eat less meat and dairy.

Doing so will cut Europe’s dependence on imported grain commodities, and lessen the pressure exerted on tight food markets.

Repeated food crises are no coincidence. But solutions are within reach, and now is the time for the EU to grasp the opportunity. Three clear steps would help prevent future food crises and save millions from poverty and hunger.

Robbie Blake is an activist at Friends of the Earth Europe, a Brussels-based NGO group