The World Food Summit in Rome this month set the goal of cutting “by half the number of undernourished people by no later than 2015” and pledged action to combat the food crisis.
In an email interview after the summit, William Dar, director-general of the Hyderabad-based International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or Icrisat, discussed the crisis and factors stoking it. The world better get used to the fact that the days of cheap food and fuel are over, said the Filipino agricultural scientist, the first Asian to head the institute.
India had a record food crop in the year gone by, and government procurement levels are impressive. Yet food prices continue to soar, judging from the weekly inflation rate. Why is that happening?
Soaring food prices is a continuing phenomenon that has been happening for years. However, it has been more pronounced in the past 6-8 months. In fact, as mentioned (on) BBC, India’s ban on export of rice has contributed to the rising price of rice worldwide.
Word of caution: William Dar.
Soaring food prices are intertwined with that of fuel, so this will happen until oil prices will eventually stabilize. When that will happen, we don’t know.
Can you comment on India’s response to the crisis on food and food price inflation, the export curbs?
The government of India is doing its best to control prices despite strong external forces. The food crisis is a global phenomenon, so domestic actions are not sufficient to control this problem. These take time and we cannot expect an immediate solution.
What further action do you think needs to be taken?
The most practical action is to launch an intensive food production programme to increase domestic supply and support Indian farmers to attain this.
Once supply is adequate, prices will stabilize. Edible oil is in short supply in India, therefore there is a need to import and ensure adequate domestic supply.
What has led to the food crisis and fuelled it?
Dwindling international supply of cereals coupled with soaring demand as a result of changing food habits and propelled by soaring oil prices led to the food crisis.
Dwindling supplies were mainly due to drought and bad growing seasons in major cereal-exporting countries such as Australia and the US; use of corn for biofuel production in the US and Europe; and of course the increasing price of crude oil. The other innocuous factor is the decline of funding to agricultural research.
Is increased food consumption in the emerging economies, particularly in India and China, and changing food habits to blame?
Although it is true that food habits change with an improved economy, it is not completely correct to attribute the food crisis to this fact.
The government of India is providing rice and wheat at subsidized prices in the country, making it easier for Indians to consume such commodities. If cereals such as sorghum and bajra were also sold at subsidized prices, it would benefit the consumer, and there would be more demand, which would eventually benefit the farmer.
It is perhaps more true that the rising prices of crude oil and petrol are contributing to the rising prices of food, as transportation of food is bound to cost more, as also the cost of fertilizer.
When can we see normality restored on the global—and Indian—food and food price fronts? How do you assess the results of the Rome summit?
The Indian (and global) food situation will normalize with a sustained national food production programme, with the government mobilizing all support systems (land, improved seeds, water, fertilizer, low-cost credit, extension-information, post-harvest and marketing) at the hands of farmers—our chief producers of food.
The credit crisis and food and fuel crises have dovetailed and seem to be feeding off one another?
As we mentioned earlier, the food and fuel crises are intertwined and this is now the world’s major challenge. Everything is uncertain now, but one thing is sure: the days of cheap food and fuel are over.
It is difficult to give a hard and fast answer to these questions as needs change according to the situation, but moderation in all aspects of life is an age-old practice we can follow. We need to keep producing food in order to live. We must also explore alternative sources of energy and power for the immediate future.