Agriculture ministers from the world's richest countries are holding
an unprecedented meeting this weekend as the United Nations warns that
hunger threatens to "spiral out of control" in the wake of the
The three-day meeting, which opened in Italy
yesterday, will address a growing food crisis as harvests threaten to
slump at a time when record numbers of people are already hungry. Crops
are being hit by a combination of bad weather, falling food prices and
farmers' being refused credit to buy seeds and fertilisers.
the first time that the agriculture ministers of the G8 leading
economies have held such a meeting, and they have invited their
counterparts from China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa,
Australia, Argentina and Egypt to join them in Treviso "to work out a
common route to lead us out of the crisis and respond to the world food
The UN's World Food Programme warned: "As the global financial
crisis deepens, hunger and malnutrition are likely to increase as
incomes fall and unemployment rises. The world is at a critical
juncture where we risk watching hunger spiral out of control. We cannot
afford to lose the next generation."
The crisis began even before
the start of the credit crunch, at a time of record harvests. About two
years ago food prices started to rise abruptly, despite the bumper
crops, mainly because of the increased use of corn to make biofuel,
particularly in the US, and increasing meat consumption – which mops up
grain supplies to feed livestock – by the rising middle classes in
developing countries such as India and China. Prices of wheat and corn
doubled in a year – and rice more than trebled – leading to the first
steep and sustained rise in hunger in decades.
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A record crop last
year did not help much. It brought the cost of grain down in rich
countries, which saw most of the increased production, but not in
developing ones where the poor live, partly because their currencies
fell against the dollar in which international prices are set.
it led to farmers in Europe and the US planting less this year because
they can expect lower returns at a time when it is harder than ever to
get loans. The US Department of Agriculture reported this month that 7
per cent less land is being used to grow wheat, in a country that helps
to supply 100 nations around the world.
China – which feeds a
fifth of the world's people off just a 10th of its cropland – did
increase sowing but, in another cruel twist of fate, was then hit by
its worst drought in nearly 70 years, cutting yields by up to 40 per
cent. And drought has also led to a similar slump in another of the
world's great grain-growing regions, Argentina, Paraguay and southern
All this means, says the Food and Agriculture
Organisation, that harvests are set to fall his year "in most of the
world's major producers". The UN adds that it would cost $6bn (£4bn) to
stave off the resulting hunger, which would be "relatively inexpensive
compared to the trillion-dollar rescue packages designed to save