Policy Makers in Crisis Mode Over Food and Fuels

The surge in world food prices, oil prices at well over $110 a barrel and measures to boost the use of biofuels in the US and Europe are putting policy-makers into crisis mode.

It is extraordinary how this situation has taken fire in just a few months and how intertwined the different factors are. A perfect storm, indeed. International organisations warn that the rising cost of food will threaten the stability of nations, especially developing countries. Even for a country like China food inflation is a major threat to the government. A “silent tsunami” is how the head of the World Food Programme has described the global situation.

The European Commission has responded with an increase in emergency food aid, just as it should, but we are witnessing more than a short-term crisis. Commissioner Louis Michel pulled no punches when he spoke to the European Parliament recently. While announcing an increase in EU food aid spending to nearly €300m so far this year, he also warned just how dangerous the international situation was becoming.

The current food price situation focuses attention on the future of the common agricultural policy. You might think that high market prices for cereals (somewhat mitigated by the strength of the euro) would reduce the need to spend European taxpayers’ money on expensive support arrangements for EU agriculture, but that’s not how French farm minister Michel Barnier sees it.

For him the present situation proves the need for an expensive protectionist policy. He even urges other countries to follow suit and build their own c.a.p., so everyone would aim for autarkic self-sufficiency. His German counterpart Horst Seehofer is walking in the same direction. On the other hand this particular view was swiftly rebutted by Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel who took a pro-trade stance, just one month before her proposed overhaul of the CAP.

Of course agricultural ministers always resist change, but these interventions suggest that longer term moves to review the future of the c.a.p. will run into stiff opposition. We can probably kiss goodbye to any hope of completing the Doha Round before the US elections. Interestingly, Brazil is making tariffs on biofuels a key aspect of its position on Doha.

Pressure on the EU biofuels commitment continues to build. Commission President Barroso has asked for an assessment of the impact of biofuel production on food prices and on development. The Commission press room is thick with rumours of division in the college. Some officials are briefing that the 10 per cent commitment for biofuels in transport fuel by 2020 has been sidelined, while others dismiss any such talk.

Among member states the British appear to be reconsidering their biofuels commitment after a national 2.5 per cent obligation came into effect. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is concerned that some biofuels do not meet the necessary sustainability criteria and may call for changes in the EU targets.

The fact is that European and American subsidies for biofuels, which were designed to prime the pump until the industry could become viable in its own right, have produced a host of unpredictable and positively absurd consequences.

For instance, it seems that a big chunk of Europe’s biofuel industry has been put out of action because of the imports of “splash and dash” biodiesel from the US. All you need is a tanker load of biodiesel, maybe exported from the EU or South America, add 1 per cent of mineral oil, collect a subsidy of €200 per tonne from the US administration and then ship it back to Europe where you collect further subsidy. The EU companies have now lodged a formal anti-subsidy and anti-dumping complaint.

The debate over GMOs is going to hot up as well. It takes on a new urgency as world food prices continue to soar and is bound to provoke some intense debate in Commission, Council and in the member states. No doubt there are risks to be analysed and assessed, but I wonder how the arguments against the use of genetically modified crops could stand up in the face of a major world food crisis and massive malnutrition in developing countries.