Friday 17 October 2008

Rising food prices: An opportunity for change?

The Brussels Development Briefings is a bimonthly series of meetings on key issues and challenges for rural development held in Brussels at the European Commission.

Yesterday’s briefing held at the World Food day on 16 October 2008 addressed the challenge of dealing with rising food prices. In two panel discussions, twelve knowledgeable speakers addressed the rising food prices and best policy options to ensure long term food security, especially for vulnerable households.

Key findings, background documents, blips and blogs are available online. This posting reflects on the contributions made by Stineke Oenema (ICCO) on behalf of the European Food Security Group (EFSG) of CONCORD.

Dr. Lluis Riera Figueras from the European Commission's DG Development introduced the question of rising food prices and the slow response of farmers to increase the supply of food. Solutions for high food prices and the higher food demand vary. Among them, are a need for: funds to be made available that are well monitored to ensure they reach the farmer, technological developments, resilience to be built by countries through increased stocks of grains,and the active involvement of farmer organizations. The different speakers emphasized the need to act now, especially in the Sub-Sahara African region.

A time of crisis allows people to stop and rethink what they are doing. It can therefore also be an opportunity for change. Stineke Oenema, the only female speaker, diplomatically emphasized the need for a new food system in which the right to food is central.

Unlike most of the other speakers, her message explicitly propagated a need to protect smallholder farmers. Their production processes need to be strengthened before they can equally compete in the free market. She described the case of a school feeding programme in Bolivia where small scale farmers provide food to the schools. Their preferred position gives them a secure demand with stable prices. With relatively small financial inputs, the complete chain from producer to consumer is strengthened.

However through regional free trade negotiations, this preferential position of small farmers risks being liberalized. When this happens, farmers will loose their preferred situation and will have to compete in the world market. Then they would no longer benefit from this programme.

Luca Alinovi, senior economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization, concludes that it is urgent to set our objectives straight and that we should start by bridging the dichotomy between protectionism and free market thinking. The reality is that most successful measures to tackle the food crises can be achieved by workable and correct policy mixes. These policy mixes should include support for smallfarmer production and market regulation and it should remain focused on the most vulnerable rural households.

On Saturday 18 October (22:45), Stineke Oenema joined a thematic evening on the Food Crisis on national Dutch television. View the video.

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