The world food crisis -- the "silent tsunami" -- now threatens some 100 million people across the world. Food riots in Haiti, Egypt and Ethiopia have brought it to international attention. World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick says that 33 countries are at risk of food-related upheaval. Famine may revisit North Korea, parts of Africa and even Afghanistan, where the United States is already in trouble. The World Food Program has made an emergency appeal for additional food and aid. The danger is real and present.
This humanitarian crisis also presents the United States with both the imperative and the opportunity to lead. It is imperative because the United States, as a wealthy country and agricultural exporter, can afford to lead. It is an opportunity because leading now can help the United States revive a reputation badly scarred by Iraq, Abu Ghraib and much more.
President Bush seems finally to have realized this. He has released $250 million in emergency food aid, sending wheat from U.S. stocks. He has called on Congress to provide $770 million in additional aid next year, a combination of direct food supplies and increased aid for agricultural development. The new aid request includes about $620 million in direct food aid shipments, mainly to African nations, and $150 million for long-term projects to help farmers in developing countries.
Supplying emergency aid is both the right thing to do and will help raise the U.S. reputation abroad, as our assistance after the literal tsunami that hit Southeast Asia did a few years ago.
But the real leadership is in developing a long-term plan for food sufficiency. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emphasized, "Ultimately, the world must come together to forge a long-term solution to rising prices of food."
If we flood areas with free food aid, it will lower prices in the region and drive local farmers out of business. We need, even in emergency aid, to be seeking to purchase as much food as possible from farmers in the region, providing an incentive for farming. We need development plans that emphasize local food production and distribution, the food equivalent of decentralized energy independence.
President Bush seems to be headed the other way, coupling his announcement of food aid with a plea to finish the Doha Round of trade talks that would emphasize food exports, not sustainable, local production of food. But it is the global market in food that is at the root of the tragedy we face.
The current crisis is the result of a perfect storm: drought in Australia; rising demand, particularly in India and China, and ethanol subsidies to grow food for fuel in the United States and elsewhere. But beneath this is the creation of a global food market dominated by heavily subsidized export crops. With more and more small farmers forced off the land and into the cities, countries become more dependent on imported food. Then when there's a global commodities bubble, or simply a global supply shortage, the prices can soar. In the current crisis, rising oil prices, commodity speculation and dependence on imported foods all contributed to the soaring prices.
President Bush said, "The American people are generous people and compassionate people."
The challenge, however, is for the U.S. government to be not simply generous but wise, helping to forge an international strategy that can solve rather than worsen the growing challenges that face us: the food crisis, catastrophic climate change, the global financial mess. This will require new thinking, a new commitment to multilateral cooperation and a very different set of policies.
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