Ministerial Food Fight: Berlin Drops the Ball on Tackling World Hunger
The German government is failing spectacularly to find a common strategy to address the current global food crisis. Ministers seem to prefer protecting their pet projects and are pointing the finger at each other rather than working together to ease the suffering in developing countries.
Should German farmers receive export subsidies? The Berlin government is bickering over what measures to take to tackle the food crisis.
Yet in Berlin, no one seems particularly concerned. Just how apathetically the German government is reacting to the growing danger could be seen last Wednesday, when most ministers were absent during a parliamentary debate on the issue. Only Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) seemed to follow the debate on the world food crisis with much attention. Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler, also from the SPD, let his head fall sleepily to his chest. Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) wrote text message after text message on his mobile phone.
That makes the development minister angry. In her opinion, German agricultural policy shares the blame. Export subsidies for farmers in Europe aggravate the global food shortage, she says, and they have “promoted unfair competition at the expense of small farmers in developing countries.”
The finger-pointing between Seehofer and Wieczorek-Zeul is typical of the government’s handling of the crisis. No minister wants to be held accountable, much less own up to conflicting interests. Fault always lies with another politician, in a high-level governmental blame game. There is not even a consensus when it comes to analyzing the origins of the food crisis.
In truth, there are many reasons for the high prices and scarcity of goods. With so many different causes at play, Germany can have at most an indirect influence on factors such as global population growth, increased meat consumption, climate change or the liberalization of global trade.
However, when it comes to biofuel crop cultivation, agricultural subsidies, or aid for small farmers, the situation is different. Here the German government could arguably make a difference, at least in easing the crisis. But the ministers resist because it would mean admitting their own mistakes, or letting go of pet projects. Thus Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD continues valiantly to reject the notion that food supplies are short partly because crops for biofuels are being grown in their place. He wants to protect his climate strategy, in which biomass plays an important role.
Wieczorek-Zeul says rapeseed and grains should not be used for biofuels for the time being, so that the market can stabilize. This has set off alarm bells in Gabriel’s camp. The development minister was just looking for a “hot button topic,” he says -- although an internal study at the World Bank argues that soaring food prices are caused in large part by the biofuels boom.
Embarassing for Germany
Meanwhile, Seehofer wants to hold onto his subsidies for farmers. “Export subsidies will be dismantled by 2013 in any case,” the agriculture minister puts forth by way of argument. But that is not entirely true. In WTO negotiations on new regulations for global trade, the EU has indeed offered to get scrap of agricultural export subsidies -- but only if the US does the same. And that is not going to happen any time soon.
The failure to shoulder any blame and the mutual finger-pointing could prove embarrassing for Germany in the end. The WTO conference is slated for May 19, and the Berlin government only has until then to present a unified front on how it plans to do its part in coping with the food crisis. The WTO session will be followed by a special summit of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation in June, and then the G8 summit in Japan in July. International pressure is high, so the ministries have to submit their plans by May 5.
Within the government, the first signs of self-criticism are appearing. An internal paper in the Agriculture Ministry -- which is an avid supporter of the biofuels program -- reports that biofuel crop cultivation does in fact compete with food production. And this could be aggravated by Germany if it imports more biomass for fuel in order to reach its climate goals.
But so far there is little to indicate that the government will agree to a comprehensive strategy. For that to happen, the development minister would have to admit that she has done too little for the world’s small farmers. The agriculture minister would have to acknowledge that he is responsible for nutrition throughout the world, and not only within Germany. And the environment minister would have to realize that there are other crises in the world besides global warming.
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