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Food Conference

DW staff (jc)June 3, 2008

There was no shortage of acrimony at the two-day UN conference in Rome on the threats posed by rising food costs. Participants attacked the obese, protectionism, biofuels and two leaders many felt shouldn't attend.

Pakistanis line up for food
Price hikes have meant many people have had to line up for food aidImage: AP

The summit, which kicked off in the Italian capital on Monday, June 2, was called to address fears that rising food prices could leave up to one billion people in danger of malnutrition or starvation.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon attacked trade barriers imposed by India and China to protect their own citizens against the higher costs of rice and other foodstuffs.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon
Ban Ki-Moon said nothing was more "degrading" than hungerImage: AP

"Some countries have taken action by limiting exports or by imposing draft controls," he told world leaders. "Beggar Thy Neighbor food policies cannot work -- they distort world markets and force prices even higher. I call on nations to resist such measures and to immediately release exports designated for humanitarian purposes."

West to blame?

But Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said that farmers from poor countries needed to be able to make a living and blamed the "intolerable protectionism" of rich Western countries for the fact that many food costs have doubled in recent years.

Farmer woman with soybeans
But bad news for consumers is often good news for producersImage: AP

"Subsidies create dependency, break down entire production systems and provoke hunger and poverty where there could be prosperity," da Silva said.

Meanwhile, the head of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization Jacques Diouf said many people in the West simply ate too much.

"No one understands…how overconsumption by obese people in the world costs $20 billion [13 billion euros] each year," Diouf told the summit.

The FAO is calling for $1.7 billion (1.2 billion euros) in emergency aid to tackle the crisis.

Food or fuel

OXFAM activists, some dressed as corn cobs, protest outside the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
Protestors at the summit blames biofuels for driving up pricesImage: AP

The summit also addressed the possibility that growing demands for biofuels, driven by skyrocketing oil prices, was driving the costs of rice, corn and wheat up.

Many experts think that is the case -- the US, for example, plans to channel around a quarter of its corn production into producing ethanol by 2022.

But representatives from nations with an interest in biofuel production denied that it was driving the price rises.

"Biofuels are not bandits," Brazilian President da Silva said. "To the contrary, if they are produced in a serious way they become an important tool to lift the poorest countries out of food insecurity.

Unwelcome guests

A women walks with a donkey and her young children near the drought stricken village of Gwanda, Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe has serious food security issuesImage: PA/dpa

But the serious issues on the agenda in Rome were somewhat overshadowed by squabbling about two of the attendees.

Many countries, including Germany, felt that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe should not have been present.

"I find it very cynical that someone who has driven people…into hunger and [his] country into ruin dares to turn up at such a conference," German Development Minister Heidmarie Wieczorek-Zeul told the German television channel ZDF.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also caused controversy by linking the food-price crisis with Israel.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures to the media
Many felt Ahmadinejad should have stayed awayImage: AP

"Europeans have suffered the biggest damage from the Zionists, and today the weight of this artificial regime, both political and economic, is on Europe's shoulders," Ahmadinejad reportedly told the Telenews news agency.

That drew an official complaint from Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, to the United Nations and the Italian government.

"It is deplorable that a leader like him, who is failing both his own people and the international community, is allowed to hijack the agenda of this important FAO conference," Lauder said.

But Ahmadinejad dismissed the idea that his statements harmed the summit.

"People really like my declarations," he told Telenews.