The 34th annual G-8 summit, which concluded Wednesday, will probably have little significant impact on global politics other than providing photo opportunities for participants. But whatever actions come from the conference of the world's wealthiest nations (plus Russia) is unimportant. What is important is what was discussed, or rather what wasn't discussed. Among those items not on the agenda were the U.S. presidential election, Jesse Jackson's desire to castrate Barack Obama and of course, rising fuel prices. Stateside, the latter seems the most fashionable topic of the season, as the American public whines about paying market prices for gasoline and is then indulged by the media in a bizarre sado-masochistic ritual.
It's because of our fuel obsession that you may be unaware of arguably the most significant problem faced by the G-8 this year: rising grain prices. The prices of the world's four staple crops -- rice, wheat, corn and soybeans -- are double what they were a year ago. In poor countries, where the majority of a family's budget is devoted to food, this results in a devastating drop in the standard of living. At least 100 million people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty. Protests have already occurred in 34 countries, and 14 of them have descended into violence.
The media has given some casual attention to these food shortages, but not nearly as much as to the "gas crisis." The most obvious reason for this is that increases in grain prices are not very noticeable to American consumers because they spend significantly less of their income on food compared to citizens of poorer countries.
However, I propose a second reason for this disparity in coverage. It centers on the person on whom we place blame. The majority of articles on the topic struggle to find someone to scapegoat for higher petroleum prices. A few of the regulars are President Bush, "evil" oil corporations and a lack of government intervention. It is difficult to face the fact that supply and demand are the dominant, though admittedly not sole, factors that set the price of a barrel of oil. The whim of the current or future president is not a factor. Some of us are set in an archetypal view in which Bush is always wrong, corporations are greedy and the government needs to chaperone everyone to the dance. Thus the energy issue becomes a platform to attack the things we already think we know are bad.
However, we cannot so conveniently apply the same model to higher grain prices without looking foolish. The world has enough arable land to be able to cheaply feed its population, yet high prices are driving millions into starvation. This is largely because developed countries, particularly the United Statesand the European Union nations, have been strangling farmers in poor countries with protectionist trade policies for decades. For example, the United Statespays farmers, who compose one percent of the population, around $2 billion dollars a year to not farm on 36 million acres of arable land. Additionally, one-third of U.S. corn production now goes to ethanol production, thanks to $7 billion in government subsidies.
But the most insidious aspects of U.S. agricultural policy and, even worse, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, are the billions paid in additional farm subsidies and the trade barriers passed in both countries designed to protect uncompetitive farmers. Whereas poor countries with an abundance of available land and cheap labor should be able to specialize in agriculture and develop infrastructure and trade, entrenched labor interests in rich nations have made this financially infeasible.
We cannot lash out and blame corporations, free trade or even President Bush for these problems. In June, Congress passed the largest farm conservation bill i history, despite the President's veto. Until recently, Sen. Obama condemned NAFTA, and only a third of Americans realize that free-trade agreements are good for the country. In the end it is too inconvenient to accept that protectionist trade policy is starving millions; it is much easier to appease agricultural interests and complain about gas prices.