9th Jul 2020

Food aid alone will not solve global food crisis, economist tells EU

The EU should provide structural aid to increase yields from peasant farmers in poor countries if it wants to help the global food crisis rather than just throwing emergency food aid at the problem, American economist Jeffrey Sachs told the European Parliament on Monday (5 May).

"If we just stay at the level of emergency food aid, we will not solve the problem," said the economist who is instead urging the bloc to look at ways to help farmers boost food production.

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  • "Rather than shipping expensive food aid, we should be helping the poorest of the poor to grow more food" (Photo: world bank)

Emergency food aid is a response that should indeed be applied, he said, but "in the most short term" with a "time horizon of just the next six months. It won't solve anything longer term. For a longer term solution, we need to address the structural supply."

"Rather than just shipping expensive food aid, we should be helping the poorest of the poor to grow more food."

The biggest success story of this sort, said Mr Sachs, has been the doubling of food production in Malawi in last three years. "This can be replicated in many places, and I urge the EU to follow this kind of logic."

The former advisor to ex-UN-Secretary-General Kofi Annan and repentant architect of the 'shock therapy' market strategy that was applied to Bolivia in the mid-1990s and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall told the parliament's development committee that the crisis in food prices around the world was a product of "growing world demand for food hitting against rather stagnant supply."

This crisis of supply and demand was in turn caused by a series of factors. Food production in poor regions was "far below what it should be." These regions, he said, are producing only a third or even a quarter of their potential food output. The solution, he said, is to raise food output to levels that meet their full potential.

Additionally, food production is being hit by "a number of climate shocks" in recent years, with changed weather patterns affecting harvests.

The American economist also added his voice to the growing criticism of biofuels saying: "We should cut back significantly on our biofuels programmes, which were understandable at a time of much lower food prices and much lower food stocks but do not make sense now at a time of global food scarcity condition."

EU leaders last spring agreed that the EU should increase the use of biofuels in transport fuel to ten percent by 2020, up from a planned 5.75 percent target to be achieved by 2010.

In the wake of criticisms of the policy from the UN World Food Programme, the World Bank and its own scientists, the EU last week claimed that although American biofuels policies are affecting food prices, its own strategies are having only a minimal effect. But Mr Sachs argues this is false.

"The biofuel impact is greater in the US because it's a larger programme. In Europe, it's still a real impact though due to two things: to a modest extent food, wheat for example, is used for creating biofuels in Europe and that amount is to multiply considerably in the years ahead. Secondly, land that is crop-growing land is diverted from grains to rapeseed and other inputs for biodiesel."

"The US has a larger impact, but neither of them makes much sense in terms of the environmental effect, the energy balances or the food impact," he said.

He favours instead second generation biofuels research. "I'm a strong supporter of gaining expertise by research into biofuels that do not compete with foodstuff, such as cellulosic ethanols, which are not yet ready for commercial application but need more research.

Mr Sachs would also like to see more funding on research into improved seed varieties that are drought and "climate-proof", as "these climate shocks will continue to come."

However, he stressed that this meant conventional crops, along with increased use of fertilisers and small-scale irrigation, and not genetically modified organisms.

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