The Gourmet Q + A: John Powell

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A. The history of the green revolution in Asia is one of absolutely massive increases in food production, coupled with the absence of famine. In that macro sense, it has clearly been a quite outstanding success, and is an absolutely glorious tribute to Dr. Borlaug and his team of scientists who promoted the technological and scientific breakthroughs which led to the green revolution in Asia. That is by no means to claim perfection, and indeed you are correct in saying there are serious concerns that the Indian government is addressing, particularly relating to the number of suicides of small farmers in India. Dr. Swaminathan, for example, of the Swaminathan Institute, who was a key figure in the green revolution, is one of the people dealing with this issue. It is one of the key planks of the government’s new five-year plan. 

Q. Isn’t there something ironic about all this money and all these resources going into fertilizers and new seeds—not to mention GMOs [genetically modified organisms]—in Africa, whereas in places like Europe and the U.S. and Australia, everybody’s turning increasingly toward organics and paying more money for food that is the opposite of what we’re promoting to the rest of the world?

A. Globally, the situation is that last year we had the second-best cereal harvest on record, and notwithstanding cereal stocks at their lowest levels, soaring food prices, etc, there still is sufficient food for everyone in the world to have a fully nutritious diet. The notion of a new face of hunger is directly attributable to what we’ve been seeing recently, that is soaring food prices.

Q. Meaning it’s not so much that there’s a lack of food but that it’s so expensive that people just can’t afford it?

A. That’s the group I’m talking about. These are typically the urban poor, they are the rural landless, pastoralists, and those who own a little land but do not produce enough food to provide for themselves and their families. So there may well be food in the market or on the shelves, but these people simply don’t have the income to be able to buy it. Let me begin by saying that in the United States and Canada, Australia, Japan, etc—in the developed world—typically a family would spend 15 percent of its income on food. For a poor person in a developing country, that number goes to 60 to 80 percent of income. So rising food prices, while much debated in the developed world, have a massive impact in developing countries, because most of these people we’re talking about earn less than a dollar a day.

Now what happens when a family is then hit with soaring food prices? The first thing they do is take their children out of school, so that they can avoid paying school fees, buying books, and so on. The second thing is that they visit the doctor less, or go to the clinic less, to avoid charges and costs for medicine. The third thing is that they eat fewer meals and shift to less-nutritious food. So the long-term implications, particularly for the young, can be potentially devastating in terms of health and education. Which is why we have been arguing so strenuously that the international community needs to come together and support developing countries with stretched financial resources, to strengthen or put in place social safety nets to protect the most vulnerable in their communities—essentially, the new face of hunger.

Q. Which is also an angry one, right?

A. Absolutely. And so the first part from a humanitarian perspective is the need to deal with the new face of hunger. The flip side of that is what you are reading about and seeing on your TV screens, the food riots in Morocco, in Cameroon, in Senegal, the military distributing food in the Philippines, the disturbances in Indonesia, the riots and change of government in Haiti, the military bakeries in Egypt … this is what happens. Now, unless we’re able to help developing countries with limited resources to deal with this problem, we’re likely to find a phenomenon whereby the riot happens on a Saturday afternoon, and the government has a new set of policies by Monday morning. And they’re highly unlikely to be best.

Q. I know a lot of places are imposing price controls and banning exports.

A. About a third of the world is now living under this regime, and as Secretary General Ban [Ki-moon] has said, these simply distort markets and disrupt the normal course of commerce.

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