Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ethiopia Facing World's 'Most Urgent' Food Crisis

Nicholas Benequista, OneWorld US
ADDIS ABABA, Sep 3 (OneWorld) - The most pressing food crisis in the world at present is in Ethiopia, according to John Holmes, the United Nations' under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs.
Holmes is on a three-day visit to Ethiopia to witness the efforts by the Ethiopian government, UN agencies, and international aid organizations to attend to the needs of more than 10 million people facing food shortages in the Horn of Africa country.
"In terms of the urgency of the food crisis and in terms of the immediate risk of children dying, I don't think there's another crisis like this one," Holmes said during a flight to the southern epicenter of Ethiopia’s crisis.
Ethiopian farmers and livestock herders are being hit with both a drought and skyrocketing food prices; in some areas, food prices have quintupled in just a year. At the same time, the global spike in food and fuel prices has hampered relief efforts by cutting the purchasing power of the World Food Program in half. With scarce resources to attend to the emergency in Ethiopia, families rescued from hunger often fall back into crisis.
On the first day of his trip to Ethiopia, Holmes visited a feeding center where dozens of women waited to have their children weighed -- a chance for free life-saving rations of a nutrient rich peanut paste, but only for those sick enough. Many return week after week. In all, the United Nations estimates that 75,000 children are at risk of starving to death in Ethiopia.
Though Ethiopia has posted double-digit economic growth over the last five years, most of its farmers remain dependant on rainfall. The country's pastoralists, who migrate with their animals to find verdant pasture, are also at the mercy of weather. In some parts of the country, three consecutive rainy seasons have failed.
"There are these problems arising all over the world. Donors' pockets are not bottomless."- John HolmesEarlier in the day, one farmer, standing in a field of stunted maize, told Holmes he had planted seeds four times this year in hope of rain. Each time, the rains never came.
Until they do, international donors will have to provide support, said Holmes. Yet Ethiopia is still asking countries like the United States and United Kingdom for an extra $140 million, and that figure is likely to rise this month when the government releases revised estimates of its humanitarian needs.
"One of the problems is that there are these problems arising all over the world," Holmes said. "Donors' pockets are not bottomless and therefore the resources are more limited than they would be in other circumstances."
The global rise in food prices may force more than 100 million people back into extreme poverty worldwide, according to reports by the World Bank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Food Security

Ten million hunger-related deaths every year, half of them children, testify to our failure to achieve global food security. Over 850 million people remain trapped in the spiral of hardship that hunger imposes, a figure which continues to rise even amidst the riches of the 21st century. The recent escalation of world food prices has transformed food insecurity from a difficult development problem into an emergency. Having recently mobilised vast financial resources to rescue the discredited international banking sector, rich country governments are now under pressure to achieve similar coordination in dealing with a crisis which hits hardest at the poor.

Millennium Development Goals and Hunger
Food security is the condition in which everyone has access to sufficient and affordable food; it can relate to a single household or to the global population. The first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) falls short of food security aspirations in seeking only to reduce by half the proportion of the world’s population experiencing hunger. Furthermore, governments signing the Millennium Declaration were overriding a commitment made just 4 years earlier at the World Food Summit of 1996 which applied the same target to the number of people. Rising population figures mean that 170 million fewer will be targeted by the MDG programme than would otherwise have been the case.
The first of two benchmarks for measuring progress is the “minimum dietary energy requirement” for each person as stipulated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This naturally varies by age and sex so that a weighted average is calculated for each country based on its population profile; typically this average is just below 2,000 kilocalories per day. Despite the promises of the MDGs, over 50 million people have been added to the 800 million falling below this benchmark in 2000. Malnutrition impairs the ability to learn or to work and reduces resistance to disease, these problems increasing in severity with the shortfall from the minimum dietary requirement. Hunger is therefore a cause as well as a consequence of poverty. Children’s health and cognitive development is especially sensitive, to the extent that the majority of child mortality is attributed to malnutrition. The second MDG indicator is therefore the proportion of children under age 5 who are underweight in relation to their age. This figure has reduced only from 32% to 27% in the period 1990-2006. Unicef says that 51 countries are unlikely to reach this MDG target by 2015. Moreover, these progress assessments predate the explosion in world food prices that has rocked global development agencies in 2008. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has warned that “high food prices threaten to undo the gains achieved so far in fighting hunger and malnutrition”.

Climate Change and Food Security

As recently as 2006, progress reports on malnutrition published by UN agencies made no reference to climate change. Yet it was no surprise when, in preparation for the Bali Climate Change Conference in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) painted an almost cataclysmic picture for Africa in which “for even small temperature increases of 1-2 degrees….. yields for rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020”. In addition, the predicted increase in drought and floods will aggravate what is already a serious short term cause of food insecurity. In South and East Asia climate change threatens to upset the stable monsoon pattern around which rice production in particular has evolved. The UN supports the 50 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in preparation of National Adaptation Programmes of Actions (NAPAs) and the Bali Conference launched an Adaptation Fund which may in time support these programmes. Recognising that funding is likely to be scarce, NAPAs limit their scope to community-based low-cost options for dealing with climate variability. Adaptation of agriculture will include the use of alternative seed varieties, improved soil management, maintenance of water management systems and reforestation. These NAPA reports convey universal concern for the sensitivity of food security to a less predictable climate and for the very limited capacity of poor communities to respond. Seed scientists acknowledge the extreme difficulty of climate adaptation even where research funding is available.

Biofuels and Food Security
Under pressure to take action on climate change in the run up to the Bali Conference, politicians resorted to knee-jerk policymaking, seduced by the claims of the biofuel industry. Petrol additives such as ethanol and biodiesel are manufactured from plant crops as a means of reducing dependence on fossil fuels and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Apparently oblivious to the mathematics that one tank of ethanol for a Sports Utility Vehicle consumes corn that could feed a man for a year, the EU announced that these biofuels will contribute 10% of transport fuels by 2020 whilst the US plans to quadruple output in that period. Quite apart from the flawed assumption that these products create a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the use of land and food crops to cater for rich motorists at a time of global food insecurity has provoked outrage amongst groups campaigning for poverty reduction. Oxfam predicts that biofuel targets could create 600 million additional hungry people by 2025. In 2008, one third of the US maize crop will be diverted to biofuel production, showering corn farmers with subsidies of far greater value than US food aid. As these realities sink in, there are initial signs of back-pedalling on biofuel targets and subsidies amongst EU and US officials.

The Right to Food Promotion of biofuels has been cited as a breach of the right to sufficient food enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international treaty commitments. The UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, has urged the UN to respond to the food crisis as a human rights emergency and called for a freeze on new investment in converting food into fuel. In contrast to the half-speed MDG vision, a human rights approach to food security places immediate and inclusive obligations on governments to create capacity for their people to feed themselves. Ideally the right to food should take its place in national laws or constitutions, with guarantees of non-discriminatory and non-political strategies. Many of the world’s food security problems stem from the absence of an overriding goal to honour the right to food. A set of world trade rules might look very different if governed by such an objective rather than the focus on absolute volumes of trade.
Causes of Food Insecurity
The aftermath of the Second World War saw strategies which did indeed award priority to food security. The European Common Agricultural Policy and the US Farm Bill combined subsidies and tariffs to support the pattern of small family farms which were dominant at that time. These policies proved successful, generating colossal internal food surpluses. Not surprisingly, the poorer countries of the modern world are keen to copy this successful protectionist model, not least because of their similar profile of agriculture - there are 500 million farms of less than 2 hectares in developing countries. Such ambitions remain unfulfilled largely because in 1995 the richer countries were successful in their efforts to include agriculture in the system of open market rules governed by the World Trade Organisation, whilst simultaneously refusing to unravel their own protectionist model. Attempts by developing countries to build their agriculture sectors have been undermined, both in domestic markets undercut by cheap imports from rich countries and in exports which encounter trade barriers erected in Europe and US. Countries in Africa and South Asia are also to blame for their prolonged lack of investment in rural economies which account for about 75% of world hunger. For example, African governments are yet to meet their 2003 Maputo Declaration commitment which called for 10% of national budgets to be dedicated to agriculture by 2008. Rural economies have therefore failed to grow. Poor farmers, often holding uncertain land tenure and lacking capital, plant for a mix of subsistence and surplus for market, a model chronically vulnerable to fluctuating prices or unfavourable weather. The majority of developing countries have food deficits, a serious problem for those lacking foreign currency to purchase expensive imports.
Whilst overall population growth creates pressure on food security, it is a relatively minor factor. Since 1961 world production of food has trebled whilst the population has doubled. Feeding more than half of the world’s grain production to animals is the more significant indicator. As 7kg of grain is required to produce 1kg of beef, there is an argument that meat production on this scale impedes the goal of global food security. Another human weakness - for violent conflict - invariably leads to extreme food insecurity. The 2007 Global Hunger Index reports that “almost all” of its worst ranking countries have been involved in violent conflict in the last decade. Collapsed economies such as North Korea and Zimbabwe also generate food crises. (Oneworlduk)

Solution to food crisis must address inequalities – UN human rights chief

A wide-ranging approach addressing inequalities and the rights of marginalized groups is essential in tackling the current global food crisis, the top United Nations human rights official said in Geneva today.
While it is crucial to respond with humanitarian support in the short term, a medium- and longer-term plan must centre on human rights, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour told a special session on the food crisis at the Human Rights Council.
“Such focus helps to analyze and confront the differing impact of the crisis on people,” she noted. “It contributes to clarify the imbalances in a society that trigger or exacerbate the food crisis.”
Mr. Arbour added that a rights-based approach will also take into account the voices of marginalized groups, along with human rights institutions, civil society organizations and others.
Such a solution could also help to defuse tensions and prevent civil unrest, as well as avert violations of civil and political rights in response to protests.
The current food emergency, she observed, was triggered by the confluence of several factors, including imbalances in supply and demand, unfair trade practices and distorted incentives and subsidies.
“Yet at its core and in its punitive effects, this crisis boils down to a lack of access to adequate food,” the High Commissioner told the Council at the start of the day-long event, adding that this access is a right protected by international law.
Not only must the impact of the crisis on marginalized people must be studied, but the root causes of such discrimination – such as exclusion from access to land, productive resources and decent work – must be eliminated, she said.
If such comprehensive action is not taken, a “domino effect” which affects other rights, including the right to health or to education, could result, Ms. Arbour cautioned.
She emphasized the key role of States, which by human rights law must resolve such situations. “States’ obligations regarding the right to food and freedom from hunger also entail the adoption of national strategies to ensure food and nutrition security for all.”
The current crisis “transcends national boundaries,” the High Commissioner said, calling for cooperation among States in addressing the problem.
In his address to the Council, Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, underscored how the crisis should not be viewed as one that is solely humanitarian or macro-economic in nature, but as one that is focused on the right to food.
“What distinguishes a natural disaster from a violation from human rights is that, in the latter situation, we are capable of moving along the chain of causation, from the situation of the malnourished of the hungry to specific acts or abstentions by duty-holders,” he said.
It is up to individual countries to outline their plans regarding the right to food, the independent expert said. “At the same time, the international community must ensure that an enabling environment is created, allowing such national strategies to flourish, and providing financial and technical assistance where needed.”
The independent expert also called for stepped-up efforts to assist the agriculture sector in developing nations, in the face of soaring input prices.
“We must feed the hungry now, but we must also prevent famines from occurring tomorrow,” he pointed out.
The Council later adopted a resolution by consensus expressing its grave concern at the worsening global crisis.
It called on States – both individually and though cooperation and assistance – and others to make every effort to ensure the realization of the right to food as an essential human rights objective.
In a related development, poor countries relying on food imports are expected to spend 40 per cent more on food this year than they did last year, according to a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
According to the latest Food Outlook, this year’s food import bill for the Low Income Food Deficit Countries (LIFDSs) is forecast to reach $169 billion this year.
FAO characterized this as a “worrying development,” noting that by the end of this year imports could cost four times as much as they did in 2000.
“Food is no longer the cheap commodity that it once was,” said the agency’s Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem, stressing that soaring food prices will likely exacerbate the food deprivation suffered by 854 million people. “We are facing the risk that the number of hungry will increase by many more millions of people.”
Although the global production outlook is favourable, this is unlikely to translate into the decline of many agriculture commodities because of the need to replenish stocks and rising utilization.
FAO predicts record cereal production this year, but tight markets will result in continued price volatility. (UN News Centre)

Skyrocketing prices continue to threaten the right to food, UN expert says

10 September 2008 – The global food crisis caused by soaring prices is jeopardizing the right to food, and any potential solution to the problem must be viewed through the lens of human rights, an independent United Nations expert said today.
Presenting his latest report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, said that international assistance and cooperation are key to achieving that right under international human rights law.
Speculation in the futures market of primary agricultural commodities is one of the factors responsible for driving up the cost of food, he said.
The expert pointed out the role of agrofuel production in food price volatility. But discussions of whether production of the fuels should be halted or promoted in the best interests of farmers should be guided by the consideration of human rights, he added.
Mr. De Schutter stressed that the Council must ensure that acting in the interests of tackling climate change does not impede food protection and protecting human rights.
To date, with the exception of Brazil, production of biofuels has not proven to be a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, given the use of fertile land, water and energy necessary. Mr. De Schutter called on the 47-member Council to quickly adopt global agreements and guidelines to scrutinize agrofuel production.
Although the surge in food prices caught people around the world off guard, the poor are hungry because they cannot afford to eat, not because of a lack of food, he said.
In a related development, three UN agencies are scheduled to brief a special meeting of the Development Committee of the European Parliament in Brussels today on the current food crisis.
Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and Kanayo F. Nwanze, Vice-President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), told participants how they are jointly responding to surging food prices.
The WFP has already announced a package of more than $200 million to help ease hunger in 16 hotspots.
“With poor farmers unable to feed their own families, we are in the danger zone,” Ms. Sheeran said, calling for “extraordinary action” to address the threat of unrest due to lower food stocks.
FAO is helping boost food production in 78 countries, providing seeds, fertilizer, animal feed and other farming tools, in addition to the nearly $1 billion it spends on field activities.
IFAD, meanwhile, has provided some $200 million in loans and grants to help farmers in the developing world, and continues to call for longer-term investment to allow the almost half a billion planters in these nations to increase their incomes and resilience against price fluctuations. (UN News Center)

CBPM: What's the solution to global food crisis?#links

CBPM: What's the solution to global food crisis?#links

What's the solution to global food crisis?

By Subir Gokarn
Monetary policy actions are relatively easy to specify when the growth rate and the inflation rate are both moving in the same direction. If, with reference to a "neutral" or "comfort" zone for the two indicators, implying a sustainable balance between the two, both are to move up, this constitutes overheating and the unexceptionable response by the central bank is to increase interest rates, reduce liquidity or do both. If, relative to the same reference zone, both are to move down, the appropriate response would be just the opposite -- enhance liquidity, decrease interest rates or do both.
It is when both these indicators move in opposite directions from the reference zone that complications arise. Obviously, a situation in which the inflation rate declines while growth accelerates will not be perceived as a problem warranting any kind of monetary policy response. But let's turn to the contrary situation, in which inflation is accelerating while the growth rate declines. This is what India -- for that matter, the rest of the world -- appears to be in at the moment. What should a central bank do? Address inflation and risk growth slowing down even more? Or, try and sustain growth but risk unleashing inflationary forces that might prove to be extremely difficult to rein in later on?
The choice depends entirely on the context. However, some general principles that should guide the choice can be laid down. Two principles provide a foundation for deciding on an appropriate response. First, the response should be based on the significance of the risks to the two indicators. If the risk that inflation will accelerate in the absence of appropriate monetary actions outweighs the risk that growth will decelerate if those actions are taken, they should be taken.
Second, the response should be sensitive to the probability of success. If potentially anti-inflationary measures are highly likely to reduce the growth rate while not very likely to have an impact on the inflation rate, they should not be implemented. Conversely, if potentially pro-growth measures are highly likely to exacerbate inflation while not having a very significant impact on growth, they should be resisted.
Let's now consider the three choices that confront the Reserve Bank of India -- tighten liquidity, ease liquidity or hold steady -- with reference to these principles. Tightening liquidity is being both recommended and widely anticipated as the likely outcome in the next policy announcement. In terms of the first principle, relative risks, while the risk that growth will decelerate even more is very much there, inaction by the central bank now could cause inflation to accelerate, requiring a much more heavy-handed response in the not too distant future. Gradual, calibrated steps are far more palatable.
However, on the second principle, the probability of success, the evidence appears to go against tightening for the moment. The dominant contributors to the recent inflationary surge are food items and minerals, especially iron ore. Both these categories are being significantly driven by global demand-supply mismatches, something which domestic monetary policy actions will not have much of an influence over. As far as minerals and metals are concerned, the global slowdown may have a favourable impact on prices in the coming weeks; more importantly, slower growth in China will almost certainly contribute to softening prices over the next year or so. In other words, if a tight monetary policy cannot have much impact on circumstances that are, in any case, likely to be transitory in nature, why do it when it will almost certainly exacerbate the growth slowdown?
Turning to the second option, easing liquidity, at this point, it is widely believed to be impossible. However, it is worth examining the case for and against, particularly because it would have been seen as a legitimate course of action had the inflation numbers been less intimidating. With reference to the principle of relative risks, the growth slowdown is real and, more importantly, the sectoral pattern is closely related to the interest rate cycle.
On the other hand, it could stimulate domestic demand pressure prices, reinforcing the global forces that are already so malignant. In terms of the principle of probability of success, the issue is essentially one of timing. Going by our understanding of response lags, an easy liquidity stance will probably have a quicker impact on inflation, through its influence on expectations, than it will have on growth.
So, if tightening liquidity does not convincingly satisfy the tests of appropriateness while easing liquidity somewhat more convincingly fails them, at least for the moment, the status quo emerges as a default option. However, this is not entirely satisfactory. If there is a concrete case for the holding course, even as the clamour to tighten liquidity, it must be brought into the discussion.
In terms of the principle of relative risks, non-intervention will very likely allow the growth deceleration to consolidate and widen across sectors through linkages and multipliers.
This will, in turn, ease pressure on prices of various products and services, offsetting the global inflationary forces to some extent. On top of this, if at least some of the commodity price patterns are transitory, as suggested above, the inflationary pattern should become more tolerable in a few months. With reference to the principle of probability of success, the eventual objective is to stabilise the economy in the zone around 8.5 per cent growth and 4.5 per cent inflation. Given this, if the current inflation surge is transitory, a status quo policy today provides a little more room to manoeuvre in the next couple of quarters as far as the growth slowdown is concerned.
The critical question, therefore, is whether the recent inflationary pattern is more likely to be transitory or persistent. With respect to minerals and their downstream products, global business conditions will eventually dictate prices. However, energy and food prices are being driven by factors other than purely cyclical. There are some important linkages between them, notably through the diversion of food crops to bio-fuels and the rising prices of fertilisers, which are contributing to lower yields globally. The point, however, is that if these are structural problems with long-term implications, how much impact can a short-term policy instrument, which is essentially what monetary policy is, have?
This leads us to a third guiding principle, perhaps the most important, appropriateness: understand the cause of the problem and make sure that the policy instrument being contemplated can deal with that cause. Unfortunately, the roots of the global food situation lie far beyond the scope of interest rates and cash reserves.
The writer is Chief Economist, Standard & Poor's Asia-Pacific. The views are personal.
(Business standard)

Somalia: Food Security Alert 10 Sep 2008 - Decreasing humanitarian access exacerbates already extreme food insecurity

Conflict and civil insecurity continue to escalate in Somalia, and increased attacks against humanitarian workers in the last three months have hampered response activities at a time of sharply increased needs. In the southern and central regions, where about 78 percent of the 3.25 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance are located, militia groups have targeted aid workers, severely limiting the size and scope of humanitarian services provided. Urban and rural households in these areas have already exhausted most coping mechanisms to respond to the current crisis, the result of below–normal April–June rains, crop failure, high food and fuel prices, and continued unrest. As a result, the country is facing an extreme humanitarian crisis, and indications are that the situation will continue to deteriorate with increasing rapidity through the end of 2008, and into 2009. Urgent food and non–food assistance is needed to respond to the crisis. Increased attacks targeting humanitarians and general civil insecurity have made it difficult for aid organizations to respond to the country's increasing needs. As of July 2008, at least 23 aid workers had been killed, 18 abducted, and countless others injured, including staff from the United Nations and World Food Program.

Violence is worst in and around Mogadishu, through which 80 percent of humanitarian supplies for the country pass. Piracy along Somalia's coastline has also led to delays in commercial and food aid shipments, as cargo ship operators fear the loss of their vessels and lives following hijackings over the past two years. As a result of the increased violence, various organizations have scaled back the number and/or size of their activities, or have pulled out of the country altogether. For example, Doctors Without Borders this month ceased operations at one of its clinics in Mogadishu due to increased threats to its staff.
While the ability of aid agencies and international donors to respond to the humanitarian crisis has been limited, the severity of the crisis continues to increase in severity. In southern and central regions, an estimated 180,000 children are acutely malnourished – of which 26,000 are severely malnourished – marking an 11 percent increase from January 2008. In addition, new areas of the country are now facing high levels of food insecurity, including key pastoral regions of the north (Sool, Nugaal, and Togdheer) (Figure 1). While usually low and stable compared to the rest of the country, nutrition indicators are now also deteriorating in these areas. In the meantime, local and imported food prices have increased by 700 percent in the last year, leading to increased urban and rural vulnerability, and new waves of population movement towards refugee camps in neighboring countries. While secondary rains are expected in mid–October, they will not alleviate the severity of the current crisis. Access to food, shelter, income, water, and basic services remains severely limited, and food and non–food assistance is needed until at least the end of the year. Stabilizing the security situation is a priority to ensure such needs are met. (reliefweb)