The Silent Tsunami


The latest round of grain shortages and high food prices are creating what the World Food Program has called a "silent tsunami", threatening to plunge more than 100 million people worldwide into hunger.

Riots have already broken out in at least a dozen countries, including Egypt, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Yemen, Mexico and Haiti, where persistent food shortages saw the Senate dismiss the country’s Prime Minister in an attempt to defuse widespread anger at food price hikes.

Last week thousands of garment workers in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, went on strike over spiralling prices. The price of rice, the staple Bangladeshi food, has increased by a third since a devastating cyclone last year. As a result, 30 million of the country’s 150 million people are expected to go without daily meals.

Pakistan has reintroduced rationing, while Russia has frozen the price of milk, bread, eggs and cooking oil. Closer to Australia, Indonesia has increased public food subsidies, while a number of countries have banned exports of the staple food items.

It’s clear that there’s a serious problem here, and the Prime Minister knows it. On returning from his recent world tour, Kevin Rudd said he had discussed the food crisis with other world leaders. The question now was, he said, "How do we contribute to better food security around the world?"

Two weeks ago, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a group of over 400 expert scientists, came up with some answers.

They called for far reaching changes in world farming to avert increasing regional food shortages, escalating prices and growing environmental problems. But while the reports received support from most of the 64 governments who voted on them, Australia – along with Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom – chose not to endorse the their findings.

The report’s central message is that small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis, meet the needs of local communities and safeguard the environment. These conclusions were not reached lightly; they are the culmination of a three year global consultative process involving 900 participants and 110 countries, co-led by the UN and World Bank.

Unfortunately, in the absence of a statement from the Australian Government, which I have tried vainly to procure, it’s impossible to know exactly what elements of the report Australia takes issue with.

We do know that the United States objected to the IAASTD’s lack of support for the further industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture. At the urging of the agricultural biotechnology industry, the US also argued that the report was overstating the potential of organic and "ecological" agriculture, which the US did not believe was a viable solution for boosting global agricultural productivity.

In fact, the IAASTD’s report states that while some biotechnologies are well accepted and play a vital role in feeding the world, genetically manipulated (GM) crops in particular are controversial because their benefits – and risks – are unclear.

The IAASTD concluded that private sector agricultural research and development hasn’t done enough to produce solutions that benefit the poor, or the environment. It also pointed to the increasingly concentrated ownership of agricultural resources – likely to exacerbate food insecurity rather than reduce it.

It’s impossible to know whether Australia shares the US’s concerns or not. Either way, the Australian Government has a responsibility to speak for itself and should urgently set out its vision and policies for agriculture, both at home and abroad.

As a significant producer and exporter, Australia has a vital role to play in the future of the global agricultural sector, but its capacity to do so will only be damaged by its failure to be clear about where it stands.

Australia needs to formulate and announce its contribution to alleviating the current food crisis. In response to increasing food shortages and insecurity, the UN World Food Program (WFP) issued an "extraordinary emergency appeal" for $500 million last month, saying the money was needed by 1 May to avoid cutting rations to some of the world’s most impoverished regions.

Last week, the UN warned that it will need to make "heartbreaking" choices about which countries should receive its emergency aid, unless governments donate more money. Although Australia has made small additional contributions of food aid to existing programs in East Timor, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, it has not responded to the UN’s appeal.

In the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in March, I witnessed first hand the important contribution that Australian food aid makes to feeding some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Home to over 170,000 people, most of whom have fled fighting in neighboring Somalia, Dadaab’s refugees are entirely reliant on a fortnightly ration of maize, cooking oil and salt administered by the WFP.

As the number of hungry people grows, so does our responsibility to help, which is why Australia should be leading other nations by announcing an additional commitment of food aid in response to the current crisis.

But the Government also needs to do more. Progress in meeting the first of the Millennium Development Goals – the commitment to halve the number of hungry people by 2015 – has been disturbingly slow. To make matters worse, the current food shortage threatens to wipe out the modest progress made since the Millennium Development Summit in 2000.

Leading global efforts to get the Goal back on track is the perfect opportunity for Australia to exercise the sort of creative middle power diplomacy to which the Prime Minister aspires.

To begin, Australia should review and reissue its international food security strategy, which is now over four years old. Secondly, it should appoint a Special Ambassador for Food Security, who can help generate the international political will necessary to address the current situation and build longer term alliances.

Finally, we should convene a mini World Food Summit, the first of which was held almost 12 years ago, with the ambition of renewing international commitment to fighting hunger and ensuring that we meet the hunger related Millennium Development Goal in particular.

We have the answers to the Prime Minister’s question of how to contribute to better food security, we just need someone to act on them.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.