By Gerald O'Connell
Amid a growing global food crisis, Pope Benedict XVI is calling attention to the problem's moral and ethical roots that he says involve everyone, from producers to consumers, and not just governments alone.
"Hunger and malnutrition are unacceptable in a world that, in reality, possesses production levels, resources and sufficient knowledge to put an end to these dramas and their consequences," the pope said in a message to world leaders at a food security summit last month in Rome.
The pope said providing food is "intrinsically linked to the safeguarding and defense of human life" and that purely economic or technical considerations could not prevail over basic rights of justice.
He quoted a 12th-century legal code: "Give to eat to the one who is starving of hunger, because if you do not give to him to eat, you will kill him."
The summit, which was organized by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and drew 50 heads of state and representatives from 180 governments, was the most significant global attempt to address the worldwide food crisis. The crisis is reaching right across the globe from Haiti to Bangladesh, from Egypt to Zambia, hitting the poorest countries particularly hard and sparking street riots that have threatened the stability of governments in over 30 countries, as food prices soar and people can no longer afford to buy food.
The conference painted a stark picture. One in every eight persons in the world goes to bed hungry. An estimated 850 million people, a majority of them children, do not have enough food to eat. The number of hungry people is increasing and could soon reach 1 billion -- that is, one-sixth of the world's population.
"This is not a natural catastrophe, it is a man-made one and can be dealt with by us," Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, told delegates. "We don't need complicated research, we know what needs to be done," he said.
Globally, food prices have doubled over the past three years, according to the World Bank.
At a recent meeting of the U.S. Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Vatican representative, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, noted the current increase in prices causes some inconvenience to families in developed countries, who spend about 20 percent of their income on food.
"However, such prices are life-threatening for the 1 billion people living in poor countries," the archbishop said, "since they are forced to spend nearly all their daily income of $1 per day in search of food."
He warned that the global cost of hunger "includes lack of health and education, conflicts, uncontrolled migrations, degradation of the environment, epidemics and even terrorism."
One of the main causes of spiraling food costs is the soaring price of oil, due to the escalating energy demand not only in the developed world but also in developing countries, especially China and India. This has increased transport and agricultural costs.
A second cause is to be found in the increasing trend -- especially in the United States -- to produce cereal crops for bio-fuels instead of human consumption because of the higher profits involved. This has created a shortage in world food reserves, because America is the main contributor to those reserves, and forced price hikes.
Another very important factor is the negative impact of climate change on food production and supply. Extreme weather events (floods, droughts, etc.) and melting glaciers, with associated disasters, are occurring more frequently because of climate changes, while growing seasons have become shorter. The overall impact on food production and supply can be severe. In 2007, for example, floods affected 197 million people, mostly in developing countries.
Trade restrictions, unfair trade markets, greater meat consumption in Asia and speculation on the future crops and food prices have all contributed to spiraling food prices.
The point was highlighted at the Rome food summit by a coalition of 270 Christian-inspired and other faith-based organizations, including Caritas Internationalis, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Union of Superiors Generals in Rome and the Center of Concern (Washington, D.C.).
In a statement, they told delegates, "those suffering the consequences of food shortages will not only want to see greater solidarity though programs to alleviate the immediate effects of hunger, but will be anxious for the underlying causes (an unfair world trade system, social and environmental problems caused by the 'green revolution,' climate change, unsustainable farming practices, agro-fuel policies, speculation, waste, etc.) to be effectively tackled, thus ensuring the availability of sufficiently sustainable grown food for everyone's basic needs into the future."
Though the summit had many proposals before it, including greater investment in small farmers in the Global South, participants could not agree on the kind of concrete solutions demanded by such a serious crisis.
The Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, passed harsh judgment on the conference's outcome. Its front-page headline reflected the view of most observers: "Many words, no solution."
It did, however, acknowledge the conference's one merit: It has brought this vital issue back on the international agenda.
Gerald O'Connell writes from Rome.