The Gourmet Q + A: John Powell

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Q. But is there any way to get these governments to stop doing this?

A. The first best way, or one of the first best ways, would be to assist governments in developing countries to be able to provide the social safety nets to protect the most vulnerable, so they’re not inspired to take this kind of action.

Q. When you’re going to these wealthier nations, it seems to me not that big a leap to go from angry people to refugees and terrorists. Wouldn’t these nations be inclined to give more money than they’re giving, given the likely outcome of hunger around the world?

A. Yes!

Q. So why do they seem to be so short-sighted?

A. Well, let me begin with a quote that you might find useful, because it summarizes a point that you were making. It was made by President Obasanjo, of Nigeria, a few months ago, when he said, “A hungry man is an angry man.” Joachim von Braun [of IFPRI] has a quote which says something to the effect of, “The world food system’s in trouble, the hot spots of food risks will be where high food prices combine with shocks from weather or political crises. These are recipes for disaster.” So the answer is, yes, this is an issue, a real issue, and it requires urgent action. But that action needs to be measured. The simple fact of the matter is that rising food and fuel prices affect every country. But different countries have different capacities to deal with the problem.

Q. Could you talk a little bit about climate change and the developed world’s culpability and/or responsibility for that?

A. Our position on climate change doesn’t begin with who’s responsible and why. If the leading scientific minds of the world are basically correct, then we face a situation where, in the coming decades, we are going to see marked changes in weather and climate, and we may well see, as John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs for the U.N., has said, what we have been experiencing, in terms of the number, frequency, and scale of people affected by the disasters, may simply be a harbinger of the future, a curtain-raiser. In a number of countries in Africa, for example, the International Panel on Climate Change suggests that there may well be quite serious, distinct changes in agricultural production patterns, and this has important consequences both for, one, the volume of production and what might be produced; and two, the number of people who may need assistance.

So we see the four planks of the climate change agenda as extraordinarily important: mitigation, adaptation, science and technology, and financing. We think that it is very important to be able to work as a public agency in the international community to support that agenda.

Q. So the U.N. as an organization doesn’t take a stance on the responsibility of those nations that are emitting the most greenhouse gases?

A. The U.N. is of course the consortium of all nations, but the U.N. is focusing on those four areas: adaptation, mitigation, science and technology, and financing. As an institution, we are not engaged in who bears the greater responsibility, or who should be responsible for what particular policy. This is very much a matter on which the member states need to reach consensus. The issues of climate change and higher food prices are on top of the agenda.

Q. A few weekends ago, at the spring meeting of the World Bank and the IMF, Zoellick talked about the Doha round of trade talks and about changing the policies of the United States and Europe. He suggested that getting rid of agricultural subsidies would go a long way toward addressing the global hunger problem. Do you think that’s likely to happen?

A. Well, firstly, let me say that the WFP couldn’t agree more with what President Zoellick said. The Doha round, which covers agriculture, was designed to be a pro-development round, and an early closure to that round offers enormous possibilities for the whole world to benefit, so we have strongly endorsed that viewpoint.

Q. And are you optimistic? I mean, there are still the American and European farm lobbies, right?

A. Well, there are a whole range of lobbies, and it depends on where you sit and where you stand on some of these issues. I don’t think WFP has a position on whether we’re optimistic or pessimistic, because we’re not a party to the deal. We would certainly hope that a deal could be struck.

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