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World food prices spark debate -

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ELEANOR HALL: The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, has set up a special
taskforce to tackle the world food crisis, warning that there may be more violence as desperate
people fight to stave off malnutrition.

Already riots have broken out in Haiti, Cameroon, Egypt and Indonesia in recent days over soaring
food costs.

But back home experts are divided on whether the long term solution involves doing more than just
increasing Australia's foreign aid contributions.

As Simon Santow reports.

SIMON SANTOW: This year alone, more than three-billion dollars in Government money, has been
earmarked as Australia's commitment in official development assistance.

Some of that is food and it's destined for the most needy no matter where they are in the world.

Typically the distribution is left to non-government organisations such as World Vision who also
raise money, on top of that through donations from the public and from businesses.

PAUL RONALDS: We've been concerned for some time now that what we're seeing is, if you like, the
perfect storm. That a range of factors are all coming together in the same direction to create this
food crisis.

SIMON SANTOW: Paul Ronalds is World Vision Australia's director of policy and programs.

He says the impact of soaring food prices is forcing some very tough humanitarian decisions.

PAUL RONALDS: In some places, we're reducing the number of beneficiaries that we're feeding. So
we're trying to maintain the same level of calories, but actually have less beneficiaries.

In some places we just trying to maintain feeding the same number of people, but giving them less
calories or food that equates to less calories.

In some places we just stopping food programs all together. So and some of the things that, for
example, school feeding programs that have terrific educational outcomes as well as good
nutritional outcomes have been some that we've been forced to cut.

And they're good programs, you don't want to have to do it. But at the moment we've got to make
tough decisions.

SIMON SANTOW: Some analysts say it's time the world faced up to some tough issues.

Starting with the rush to embrace biofuels.

Helen Hughes is a senior fellow at the centre for independent studies in Sydney.

HELEN HUGHES: There's been a growing demand for food because of the growing prosperity in India and
China and other east Asian countries.

But the cause of the shortage, and you only need a small shortage to translate into a large price
increase, is the subsidies for ethanol which have diverted land from food to petrol substitutes.

Now these subsidies are the result of policies that haven't been thought through about global
warming.

You know, you may agree or disagree that global warming is taking place, you may agree or disagree
that human activity is an important component of it. But regardless of that, the policies you take
to fix it should not be policies that harm people in developing countries.

SIMON SANTOW: But World Vision's Paul Ronalds doesn't agree with Helen Hughes on the scale of the
impact of biofuel production.

PAUL RONALDS: It's more than just that. There's certainly been a loss of arable land and part of
that is due to climate change and part of that is just due to bad agricultural practices. We're
seeing increased demands for food from a growing middle class, particularly in China and India.

I mean China alone has about 300-million new people in the middle class. And they're all demanding
more grain and more wheat, a more diverse diet. And that's creating really significant pressure on
food prices as well.

SIMON SANTOW: There's a school of thought too that aid should only be given to countries which have
the potential to better themselves.

Helen Hughes.

HELEN HUGHES: By making food aid available, they've made the bad governments think, well we don't
have to do anything about growing our own food because they always come in.

I mean, look at Zimbabwe - Zimbabwe is being fed by the charities. If the charities weren't
supplying to food aid, Mugabe would be out tomorrow.

And we're keeping really shocking governments in power by giving them food aid, and it's a very
difficult situation. Because you know, what do you do?

There are people who are starving, places like Ethiopia, the typical shocking governments, terrible
agricultural policies, a food basket has been turned into a desert bowl. And it's continuing
because we give them more and more food aid.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Helen Hughes, senior fellow at the centre for independent studies, ending that
report from Simon Santow.