Canada is not immune to the forces driving the world food crisis, nor can it afford to shirk its responsibilities at home and abroad.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned high prices and shortages of food could "touch off a cascade of related crises -- affecting trade, economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world."
While the world grapples with the urgent need to find short-term solutions to the immediate crisis, which not only threatens millions with starvation, but is forecast to push at least 100 million people into poverty, we must also give priority to developing policies that address the issues driving this crisis here at home.
Unsustainable farming practices are at the heart of the problem, but changing practices will require co-operation and leadership of the world's largest suppliers of food, which includes Canada as the fourth-largest agriculture and agri-food exporter, after the EU, U.S. and Brazil.
The government should be commended for committing $50 million to the UN's urgent plea for an extra $755 million for emergency food aid, as well as untying all Canadian food aid. Experience has shown repeatedly that food purchased locally arrives much quicker and has a greater effect on the local economy than food shipped all the way from Canada. But relief alone won't lead to a long-term sustainable solution.
Climate change and an associated increase in biofuels production are recognized as key drivers behind the food shortage, but they aren't the only concerns. If we are going to address the ongoing threat to our food supply, we need to keep sight of the other drivers of the food crisis.
One of the most important aspects is a rapidly increasing global appetite for meat, as a growing number of people in China and India are now eating more grain and meat, for example.
In a perverse turn of events, even the subprime mortgage crisis seems to be playing its part. Market speculation in grain futures appears to have been driven by a shift in focus from real estate to commodities. It is estimated that 60 per cent of the U.S.-based wheat market is now controlled by hedge funds. This is a major change for a market that was not traditionally characterized this way. It has lead to price points that have more to do with speculation than actual costs.
More investment will be required to develop policies that enable people in developing countries to support themselves, rather than rely on food aid. In a way, development assistance to agriculture is a victim of its own success. The Green Revolution, that swept Asia and Latin America in the latter part of the 20th century, greatly expanding yields, gave us the impression that the food crisis had gone away for good. It sent a signal that donor countries and governments of developing countries could now turn their attention to urban and industrial problems.
This crisis should serve as a wakeup call. For Canada, this means revaluating its priorities and level of commitment for official development assistance (ODA). There has been a significant fall in the level of ODA investment in rural development over the past 30 years.
Here at home, Canada's activities in response to climate change will also need to be reviewed in light of a policy that gives priority to the production of biofuels, which have been widely identified as a driver behind the food crisis.
Canada's EcoENERGY for biofuels program at $2.2 billion represents the largest environmental spending as part of its program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change is going to have a significant impact on farming practices in Alberta, Sask-atchewan and Manitoba, and will have some effect on yields and prices as there is expected to be an increase in climate variability. Planning for adaptation to the effects of climate change is required, if our own agricultural sector is to address the predictable outcomes of extreme changes in climatic conditions and other factors with the potential to significantly impact the production and availability of food.
In summary, Canada's policy priorities to the world food crisis should be essentially threefold: to increase the resilience of Canadian agriculture to climate change; secondly, to critically review Canadian biofuels policy, and thirdly, to increase the agricultural component of Canadian ODA with the intent of increasing the food self-sufficiency in the most food-insecure countries.
David Runnalls is president and CEO of the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, which champions sustainable development around the world through innovation, partnerships, research and communications.
© The Leader-Post (Regina) 2008