In the spring of 2008, soaring food prices created a global crisis as tens of millions of people slipped into poverty and millions more struggled to make ends meet. The number of people who live on $1 a day, the benchmark of absolute poverty, has increased to roughly one billion, and an additional 1.5 billion people struggle to survive on less than $2 a day. For 40 percent of the world’s population, the increase in food prices has led to people giving up health care, pulling children from school, and cutting meat and nutrient-rich vegetables from their diets to ensure they can purchase enough grain for one or two meals per day. The food crisis has also resulted in social unrest in many countries throughout the world.
Brooklyn Law School held a panel and reception on February 5 to address the causes of this food crisis and what can be done to create just, sustainable and global approaches to providing billions of people with the food they need in the future. “Trade Policy and the Global Food Crisis” was co-sponsored by the BLS International Law Society, the Dennis J. Block Center for the Study of International Business Law, and the Customs and International Trade Bar Association. Professor Claire Kelly, who is a member of CITBA, organized the program.
A panel of experts, including Bill Ayres, executive director and co-founder of World Hunger Year, Gawain Kripke, director of policy and research for Oxfam America, Karen Sendelback, president and chief executive officer of Friends of the World Food Program, and Moderator Stephen J. Norton, senior communications advisor at Stewart and Stewart, spoke to a packed audience.
Norton first presented an overview of the enormity and causes of world hunger and discussed the “perfect storm” that has led to an increased gap between the price of food and income, which is having its hardest impact on poorer nations. The “perfect storm” includes high energy prices, biofuel initiatives, poor weather, supply constraints, trade restrictions, and increased demand for dairy and meat in rapidly developing economies such as India and China (it takes seven pounds of grain to raise one pound of meat). These factors reduce the amount of food that is available and consequently increase the prices of existing supplies.
Ayres followed by focusing on three dimensions of the global food crisis: the definition of food, the importance of small farmers, and food sovereignty. He stressed the importance of recognizing food as a human right and as a commodity thereafter. Kripke emphasized the necessity of reforming trade rules to offer more opportunity to poor farmers, create safeguards for poor countries, and reduce agricultural trade distortions in rich countries. Sendelback further discussed the food crisis on a humanitarian level and the importance of agricultural sustainability in developing countries. She argued that the current financial crisis has resulted in the reduction of economic growth projections for developed nations, which may result in lower trade volumes.
The panel agreed on the solutions to the global food crisis, uniformly suggesting reforms in food aid, investment in agricultural development and research, reconsideration of biofuel initiatives, support and expansion of safety nets, and reform of trade rules to offer more opportunity to farmers in developing countries. What is still lacking at this point, said Sendelback, is “the political will to be able to bring it to reality.”