The Gourmet Q + A: John Powell

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The fourth element is the competition for agricultural production from biofuels. The International Grains Council estimates that in the year from 2007 to 2008, 100 million tons of cereals will be diverted from the food chain to the fuel chain. So, for the first time, we actually have a situation where the price of food is linked to the price of fuel. To give you a very specific example, in some countries where palm oil is used for cooking, the price of that palm oil is being set by those concerned with ethanol production, at the price they are willing to pay. So it’s set in a different market. So much so that Professor Joachim von Braun, from the International Food Policy Research Institute, said that if, miraculously, agricultural production were to increase by 20 percent tomorrow, nobody knows whether more people would be fed, or more fuel would be produced. All we would know is that the food, the product, would go to the area that was willing to pay the highest price.

Q. There are people who are calling the West’s focus on fuel at the expense of food a crime against humanity. Would you agree with that characterization?

A. WFP takes a completely neutral stance on the issue of biofuels. Clearly, governments and the international community need to be able to strike the delicate balance between those sets of policies which will protect the environmental health and well-being of the planet and its population for the future, at the same time as we deal with providing sufficient food for the population of the world today—with the knowledge that in the next 30 or 40 years, we’re going to increase that population from more than six billion to around nine billion people. We would also say that, perhaps for the first time in 40 or 50 years, small farmers, particularly in Africa, stand the chance of getting a fair price for their products. And what would be wrong with that?

Q. Aren’t there trade deals, and isn’t there a system in place globally that is going to preclude them from getting a fair price?

A. With market demand so high for food commodities, and with world cereal stocks at their lowest levels in 30 years, there is a real opportunity for small farmers in developing countries to participate. It’s not easy, and it’s not quick, but this does present opportunities as well as risks to small farmers.

Q. But isn’t so much of the problem the productivity of the land in the developing world? And that the farmers don’t have access to the seeds or the fertilizers they would need to boost their yields?

A. This is one of the reasons why we do not believe that all of a sudden higher food prices have translated into boom times for small farmers, particularly in Africa. Because the prices of almost everything on the input side—seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, fuel—have gone up. Yet on the production or productivity side, there has been no improvement: the roads are no better, the warehousing is no better, the market opportunities are no better. So it will take a substantial focus on setting the right agricultural policies, and the level of investment in the agricultural sector, which in developing countries has been underinvested in perhaps the last two, three decades. 

Q. That’s what I was going to ask, because I know the World Bank recently said it was going to double its agricultural lending to Africa, to $800 million, but it is true, isn’t it, that in the past couple of decades the World Bank and the IMF have been cutting aid for agricultural infrastructure in Africa? 

A. It is clearly time for a substantial raising of the level of investment in the agriculture sector, and for those who call for a new green revolution in Africa—and our voice is among them—it’s important to bear in mind that the level of agricultural infrastructure in Africa today is less than it was in Asia 40 years ago, when the green revolution took root there. So that’s what we mean when we say this needs to be done, and done urgently, but it is not a question of decision taken today and result tomorrow.

Q. But there are a lot of people who would say that the green revolution in India wasn’t much of a success at all, and they point to all the Indian farmers committing suicide now because they’ve gone into such debt buying seeds and fertilizers from the multinationals. Isn’t there a danger of that happening in Africa as well, and of further marginalizing the poor farmers there?

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