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FOOD: Fighting the Famines of the Future

5 minute read

By the time the 1,200 delegates from more than 130 countries completed their first seven days of talks at the World Food Conference in Rome, another 10,000 lives were lost to famine in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the same period, another 1.4 million children were born into a world that already contains nearly half a billion starving people. In the sobering context of these statistics, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger delivered a keynote address that he considered one of the most important speeches of his career. History may herald the speech as signaling the start of a new era of international cooperation. But to many of the delegates in Rome last week, no rhetoric, however sublime, seemed sufficient acknowledgment of the human misery that had brought them to the Eternal City.

“We are faced not just with the problem of food but with the accelerating momentum of our interdependence,” Kissinger said. “We are stranded between old conceptions of political conduct and a wholly new environment, between the inadequacy of the nation-state and the emerging imperative of global community. The contemporary agenda of energy, food and inflation exceeds the capacity of any single government, or even of a few governments together, to resolve.”

To deal with the enormity of the present crisis, Kissinger outlined a comprehensive five-point program for global food planning. He urged the delegates to form a coordinating group and work out details for an international grain reserve that would assure an emergency food supply of 60 million tons. Participating countries would pool information on harvest prospects and stocks, agree on the size of global reserves necessary to protect against famine and share responsibility for storing and distributing the stockpiled grain. In its emphasis on distribution by need rather than commercial demand, Kissinger’s proposal was an almost revolutionary departure—certainly for a U.S. diplomat —from the free-market system of trade.

Kissinger had discussed his program with various heads of state on his latest country-spanning diplomatic mission. All had responded favorably, except for Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev. A reserve system would preclude the kind of secrecy-shrouded, bargain-hunting raids on the Western wheat market that have become a hallmark of Soviet trade. The Russians, who guard agricultural intelligence as a state secret, are also hesitant to begin sharing crop information. A high State Department official noted the irony of this ideological role reversal: “We are talking about planning while the Communists are using our old market methods to meet their short-term needs.”

The other four proposals in the Kissinger package were: 1) action by the food-exporting nations to increase production; 2) aid programs to help developing nations increase their productive capacity; 3) efforts to improve international food distribution and financing; 4) measures to enhance the nutritional quality of food. Out of deference to the sensibilities of both Catholic Rome and the Third World delegates, Kissinger decided not to bear down hard on the issue of population control.

All four proposals would require massive investments in agricultural research and development. Kissinger noted that the U.S. was willing to triple its research contribution from $30 million to about $100 million a year by 1980, but he emphasized that the financial burden of sustaining the food-deficit countries was too great to be borne by any single nation. In what was perhaps the most controversial aspect of his speech, the Secretary argued that “the oil exporters have a special responsibility in this regard. The continuing massive transfer of wealth and the resulting impetus to worldwide inflation have shattered the ability of the developing countries to purchase food, fertilizer and other goods. Therefore ways must be found to move more of the surplus oil revenues into long-term lending on grants to the poorer countries.”

Reaction to Kissinger’s speech was generally favorable, but not unanimously so. Swedish Delegate Kurt Hugosson dismissed the address as “just an American talking about progress.” India’s Minister of Agriculture Jagjivan Ram faulted Kissinger for not stressing that the food difficulties in which the developing countries find themselves are not of their making.

Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Agriculture and Water Hassan Mushari also objected to Kissinger’s characterization of his oil-producing country: “Labeling us as rich countries stands in need of correction. No country with as many social and economic problems as afflict practically all the oil-producing countries can be called rich in the true sense.”

Stingy Contractor. Although Kissinger’s address provoked only mild criticism, a speech delivered the following day by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz was greeted with derision. Butz simply lectured the delegates on the virtues of free enterprise without making any specific commitment of U.S. aid. Under pressure from other members of the U.S. delegation—Senator Hubert Humphrey likened Butz to a stingy contractor unwilling to carry out Kissinger’s grand design—Butz later cabled President Ford requesting an increase of at least 1 million tons in U.S. food aid.

By week’s end, there was little indication that the conference inspired many delegates to any sense of personal sacrifice. Representatives to the food conference crowded Rome’s best restaurants, discussing hunger problems as they nibbled at fettucini alia crema and veal scaloppine. When British Economist Barbara Ward suggested that affluent Western countries reduce their consumption in order to free food for the third of the world that faces imminent starvation, her plea was dismissed as impossibly high-minded and utopian.

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