World's Food Supply Being Mismanaged
Dan Lett
Winnipeg Free Press
April 28, 2008

Although rising food prices will ensure that the starving people of Sudan are a bit hungrier today, it's nice to know they do not have to go without Coca-Cola.

Sudan is suffering through arguably the world's worst humanitarian crisis. War in its western regions has displaced millions of people. Millions more throughout the country remain mired in chronic hunger.

The international community is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the World Food Programme's mission in Sudan to sustain the largest and most complex humanitarian aid mission the world has ever seen.

While staples such as wheat, sugar and corn are harder to come by due to a global shortage of food, Sudan enjoys an almost endless supply of the world's most famous soft drink which, under current U.S. trade rules, is essentially classified as food aid.

The United States is enforcing a trade embargo to protest Sudanese government complicity with atrocities in Darfur. However, U.S. politicians amended the bill enforcing the embargo to allow food and medicine to continue flowing.

At first blush, there is some sense to this amendment. After all, what kind of moral authority would the embargo have if it prevented foreign aid from reaching Sudan?

Ah, but that was only part of the motivation. The authors of the amendment expanded the definition of "food" to include staples such as, well, Coca-Cola.

The Sudanese company that bottles Coke got its licence from a subsidiary in Dubai, technically avoiding the prospect of a U.S. company doing business in contravention of the embargo.

The patented syrup used to make the pop is imported legally under the same terms that allow the importation of humanitarian aid. Opened in 2002, the state-of-the-art bottling factory produces 100,000 bottles of Coke every hour.

Deals like this exist all over the world, which ensures that even in those countries with the world's worst humanitarian records, the combatants can still enjoy the pause that refreshes.

The existence of Coke in Sudan is a reminder that although food aid is often equated with generosity, "donations" of food often involve more politics and profit motive than philanthropy.

The U.S., for example, is the largest contributor to the aid efforts in Sudan, but almost all of its support comes in the form of U.S.-grown crops. This is a reflection of a U.S. law that requires humanitarian aid to be sourced domestically. As such, the U.S. aid becomes one of the most insidious forms of agricultural subsidy.

Consider that each year the U.S. grows millions of tonnes of sorghum, a staple grain in many African nations, but one which is not consumed in the U.S. The only reason U.S. farmers grow sorghum is to export it as food aid.

A flood of heavily subsidized U.S.-grown sorghum means that it is simply not cost-effective for farmers in Africa to grow their own sorghum and wheat. And that means that developing countries never cultivate a functional agricultural economy so they can end their reliance on foreign aid.

All that is fascinating food for thought as the planet suffers through a drastic shortage of food. The prices of basic staples have escalated to the point where aid agencies are unable to meet their goals, which will force tens of millions of people from subsistence to starvation.

Many observers will complain that the burgeoning biofuels industry is to blame for the food crisis. Food aid agencies and activists are not happy that millions of acres of wheat have been converted to crops needed to produce biofuels.

But the food shortage gripping the world right now was caused by factors much more profound than the conversion of arable land from food to biofuel production.

The current crisis is the result of a perfect storm of factors: non-sustainable farming practices in developed countries; the conversion of agricultural land to other uses; the inability to shift from subsidized food aid shipments to programs to help developing countries grow their own crops; a growing global population; rapidly growing economies in India and China that are consuming more food; and climate change, which has increased both the duration and frequency of droughts.

This is a crisis decades in the making. And when Coca-Cola syrup can be imported to a trade-embargoed, food-starved country under rules governing humanitarian aid, clearly the world's wealthiest nations need to rethink how they manage the world's food supply.

As it stands now, the planet has become a powder keg, as starving people the world over panic over higher prices.

Perhaps this is the crisis that will persuade the international community to rethink agriculture, trade rules and the way we administer foreign aid.

Now, that would be refreshing.

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