Commentary: Malthus the canary

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large  |  July 31, 2008 at 10:05 AM
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WASHINGTON, July 31 (UPI) -- Lentil soup and a crust of bread as the first, second and third course at a recent G8 summit in Japan might at least have conveyed the impression the leaders of the world's principal industrialized nations were focused on a fast-unfolding food shortage engulfing the entire planet.

Instead, the convivial summiteers feasted on a six-course lunch at a five-star lakeside hotel on the island of Hokkaido, followed that same evening by an eight-course heart-burning dinner, from Kyoto beef shabu-shabu, to dicey fatty tuna, to clams floating in Shiso, to broiled prawns in Tosazu, to salt-grilled rockfish, to milk-fed baby lamb to G8 "Fantasy Desert," all washed down by wine and champagne vintages from all over the world. To then make global food security a top priority was a tad Pecksniffian.

Year in and year out, the Group of Eight meet in a bucolic setting pleasing on the eyes that tends to act as a soporific on the part of the brain that allows summiteers to anticipate global crises. Last year they met at Germany's Heiligendamm spa resort on the Baltic, where not one of the major crises that occurred since then was on the agenda. From the subprime mortgage debacle to a global credit crisis, to a declining dollar and rising euro, and the catastrophe of soaring oil and food prices, nothing was anticipated by the men and women who seem to believe they control the global economy. Giants like India, China and Brazil are not even members of the G8 club, whose last German summit was held behind a multimillion-dollar, 7.2-mile fence designed to keep 80,000 protesters out of sight.

In Geneva this week, India and China flexed their global muscles to demonstrate America's waning ability to impose global trade rules. They pulled the plug on the much-heralded Doha round of trade talks under way for the past seven years, abandoning Tom Friedman's doctrine of globalization for the illusory shield of protectionism.

In Japan last month the eight Big Ones agreed to reconvene in 2009 on the Mediterranean island La Maddalena, nestled in the Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and Northern Sardinia, one of the last untouched beautiful spots in the world. But they could save their taxpayers a bundle by canceling their reservations now and videoconferencing instead -- twice a year.

This will be needed to avoid the nightmare of Parson Thomas Malthus, the English economist who predicted two centuries ago that the population would outrun man's capacity to produce food. A new generation of Western leaders presumably has forgotten that Malthus ranks as one of "the 100 most influential persons in history" and that an early convert to Malthusianism was William Pitt the Younger, who became England's prime minister at 24 in 1783.

Nearly half a billion people are suffering from hunger. Its pangs -- and some 10,000 deaths from starvation each week in Africa, Asia and Latin America -- have triggered food riots in Mexico, Haiti, El Salvador, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Madagascar, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Hungry people get angry and start revolutions. And revolutions in the developing world breed failing and failed states. There are already 40 to 60 of them -- home to 2 billion people -- that are sliding backward and teetering on the brink of implosion or have already collapsed. Thirty-three countries are on the verge of social upheaval.

Surging commodity prices have pushed up global food prices 83 percent in the past three years. Half to three-quarters of a poor person's income of a dollar or two a day goes to subsistence food, a cup of rice a day, shared by mother and child. In the United States and Latin America, greedy wholesalers have been replacing edible corn crops with industrial corn that is then processed into biofuels, shrinking the amount of corn available on the open market.

U.N. peacekeepers -- the Blue Berets or Helmets -- are frequently the only safeguard against a total breakdown of law and order. In Sudan, even these African U.N. peacekeepers have been systematically stymied by the country's dictator, Omar al-Bashir, now accused of genocide in Darfur, where some 300,000 have been massacred under his orders. An area the size of France, Darfur is mission impossible for less than 10,000 poorly trained and ill-equipped African Blue Helmets with a chronic lack of air transport. With seven peacekeepers killed thus far, the United Nations is reluctant to insert another 15,000 who have been earmarked to end the killing in Darfur.

At a cost of $7 billion a year, the United Nations now has 110,000 peacekeepers -- 130,000 are authorized -- deployed in 20 operations around the world (for a total of 63 since the creation of the world body in 1945). Without the United Nations, large parts of Africa would have slipped back to the rival tribal entities of pre-colonial days.

And without the United States and the United Nations, large parts of the world population would be starving. The crisis has given birth to a triumvirate of movers and shakers -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, World Bank President Robert Zoellick and U.N. World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran, a former Washington Times managing editor. Sheeran, an indefatigable Paul Revere on his midnight ride, has been sounding the empty dinner bell and extended her writ to double U.S. emergency food relief to $3.2 billion, and extracted $500 million from Saudi Arabia and $1.2 billion from Zoellick, her former trade rep boss.

A "Global Food Crisis" report published this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, "The current crisis is unlike any food emergency the world has faced in the past. It is caused by a web of interconnected forces involving agriculture, energy, climate change and new market demands from emerging markets.

"All this carries grave implications for economic growth and development, international security and social progress in developing countries. Time is of the essence in formulating a response, and U.S. leadership and bipartisanship are essential, as well as expanded U.S. coordination with international organizations."

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