An independent United Nations human rights expert today called on governments and the international community to promptly tackle the renewed instability of global food markets, noting the related social unrest that has hit some countries in recent weeks.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is convening a special meeting in Rome on 24 September to examine the recent spike in wheat prices and help avoid any repeat of the recent global food crisis.
Wheat prices experienced their biggest monthly rise in almost a year in August, according to the FAO’s Food Price Index, climbing by 5 per cent following persistent drought in Russia – a major producer – and that country’s subsequent restriction on sales.
Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, called on the Rome meeting to “move beyond words” and prepare measures on speculation and food reserves. He also urged donors to step up their support to poor food-deficit countries.
“Not acting now is unacceptable,” stated the expert, speaking at the end of a mission to Syria, which has been affected by severe drought.
“In 2008, many governments were taken by surprise,” noted Mr. De Schutter. “We have today a much better understanding of what needs to be done to realize the right to food. Experts have done their work. It is now time for governments to act.”
Last week, riots in Mozambique over the rising cost of basic foods led to the deaths of some protesters, and Mr. De Schutter said the public anger was “predictable.”
He also said that too little has been achieved worldwide since 2008 despite the many commitments made. Since the recent food crisis, he has stressed the need for “structural measures to address food price increases.”
These include regulating speculation on global food markets, particularly by profit-driven commodity funds, creating a global reinsurance mechanism for poorer countries to invest in social protection and subsidized food, and improving the global governance of international and regional food reserves, including the creation of regional food stocks to allow governments to mitigate price shocks.
Meanwhile, a senior FAO official said today that food commodities markets will remain more volatile in years ahead and the international community will need to develop appropriate ways of dealing with that.
As for whether the world was headed for a repeat of the 2008 food crisis, Hafez Ghanem, Assistant Director-General for Economic and Social Development, said that the market fundamentals are “sound and very different” from two to three years ago.
“Despite the shortfall in Russia’s wheat production, this year’s cereal harvest was the third highest on record and stocks are high. Under these conditions we don’t believe that we are headed for a new food crisis, but we will continue monitoring the situation closely.
“So as regards the overall supply and demand situation there’s no cause to worry. The picture could, however, change if there is another shock to supply – for example, due to more bad weather, or if government policies lead to increased anxiety in the market, provoking panic buying,” Mr. Ghanem added.
On Syria, Mr. De Schutter estimated that between 2 and 3 million people may be considered food insecure, following four years of severe drought in the north-eastern part of the country.
He acknowledged the Government’s efforts in seeking to provide food security to its population by subsidizing basic food items and supporting its agricultural sector. At the same time, he noted, that “Syria faces huge challenges, both because of climate change and the large influx of Iraqi refugees and the occupation of the Golan.”
Mr. De Schutter, who travelled to the north-eastern region most affected by the recent drought, stressed that a rights-based approach should be integrated into the Government’s policies and programmes to tackle hunger and malnutrition.
“Unfortunately, no appropriate mapping of food insecurity and vulnerability exists in Syria. This presents obstacles in targeting policies to reach the poorest and most vulnerable in society.”
Mr. De Schutter commended Syria for its generosity in hosting a large number of Iraqi refugees, while noting that “the absence of legal status for Iraqi refugees remains a concern.” He urged the authorities to recognize the rights of Iraqi refugees to be employed in the formal sector.