Last Updated: Mon Nov 01, 2010 20:37 pm (KSA) 17:37 pm (GMT)

'20 yrs of mistakes' caused food crisis: UN expert

Says int'l community is 'unforgivable' for not preventing crisis (File)
Says int'l community is 'unforgivable' for not preventing crisis (File)

The U.N.'s new top advisor on food blamed two decades of wrong-headed policies by world powers for the food crisis sweeping the globe, in a stinging interview published on his first day in office Friday.

Frenchman Olivier de Schutter, a law professor and human rights campaigner, told Le Monde newspaper the international community was "unforgivable" for its failure to anticipate the riots sparked last month by soaring food prices.

"This is a call to order. The days of cheap food are behind us," said the United Nations rapporteur on the right to food, arguing that the current crisis showed the "limits of industrial agriculture."

"We are paying for 20 years of mistakes. Nothing was done to prevent speculation on raw materials, though it was predictable investors would turn to these markets following the stock market slowdown."

Schutter said the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) had "gravely underestimated the need to invest in agriculture," and accused the IMF of forcing indebted developing countries to invest in export cash crops at the expense of food self-sufficiency.

Workers across Asia, where one billion people are now seriously affected by the food price surge, made food their May Day battle cry, with volatile crowds staging rallies in the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Bangkok.

Experts blame the soaring prices on a confluence of factors, including trade restrictions; increased demand from a changing diet in Asia; poor growing weather; rising use of biofuels that rely on staples like corn; and the hike in fuel prices that make transporting foodstuffs more expensive.

Biofuel ambition is "irresponsible"

Schutter joined the growing chorus accusing biofuels -- until recently cast as a miracle alternative to polluting fossil fuels -- of usurping arable land and distorting world food prices.

Billions of dollars have been poured into transforming corn, soy beans and sugar to ethanol and biodiesel to help wean rich economies from their addiction to fossil fuels, mainly in the United States, Brazil, Canada and Europe.

"The ambitious goals for biofuel production set by the United States and the European Union are irresponsible," Schutter charged.

He described the biofuel rush as a "scandal that only serves the interests of a tiny lobby" and called for a freeze on investments in the sector.

But he also distanced himself from the hard-line stance of his predecessor in the U.N. post Jean Ziegler, who had called for an outright moratorium on biofuels, describing them as a "crime against humanity".

100 million people pushed into poverty

The rapporteur said it was vital to phase out "shameful" rich world farm subsidies, which he said represent an annual 350 billion dollars, but gradually to avoid driving up prices for buyers in the developing world.

And Schutter took aim at the giants of the agri-business world -- such as U.S. firms Monsanto or Dow Chemicals -- which hold patents on many of the world's most used seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.

"We need to think about changing the intellectual property rules for these companies, whose profits are exploding," he said, arguing that many products were currently priced beyond the reach of small producers.

The World Bank said last month that the doubling of food prices over the past three years could push 100 million people in poorer developing countries further into poverty.

The World Food Programme is appealing to donors for an extra 755 million dollars (487 million euros) to enable it to purchase enough food to meet its global commitments, while U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this week set up a new global task force to address the food crisis.

The U.N. food aid agency urged the U.S. congress to speedily approve 770 million dollars in emergency food aid pledged by President George W. Bush.

Schutter said he was confident a coordinated international response between now and the autumn harvests would manage to avert famine.

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