As they begin their spring planting, many Minnesota farmers look forward to a fall harvest with near-record prices. These soaring commodities costs may be a local boon, but they're a bane to much of the world. A price crisis lies at the root of a deepening world food emergency.
Described by a U.N. official as a "stealthy tsunami," the price of food is having a devastating impact on "the bottom billion," those who live on a dollar a day -- or less.
The crisis is no mere chorus of growling stomachs. Hunger hurts growing minds, hindering both brain development and education -- because education, especially for girls, is often the first item cut as families struggle to put bread, or tortillas, or rice on the table.
As it has throughout history, hunger has led to anger. Food riots have hit Africa hard, particularly in Egypt. Countries in South and Southeast Asia have deployed troops to guard rice stockpiles. In America's back yard, the Haitian prime minister resigned after riots. The World Bank warns that more than 30 countries face increased instability.
Experts may disagree on fixes, but they generally agree on causes, citing a near-perfect storm of four trends:
•Worldwide weather conditions, especially Australian drought.
•Developing middle-class economies -- and appetites -- in countries like China and India.
•Rising oil prices.
•Pressure on the food supply from biofuels, the well-meaning but controversial response to those oil prices.
The World Bank and the United Nations have issued an urgent appeal for $500 million to ease the crisis. That amount may only be a down payment, however, as prices keep climbing, the dollar keeps dropping and countries begin to hoard food, particularly rice.
The Bush administration quickly responded with $200 million from a humanitarian trust fund. It's a good start, but the president can go much further than funding. He should rally America's allies with the diplomatic rigor he applied to building the "coalition of the willing" for Iraq. He might find a more receptive audience this time, because the food crisis poses a threat the whole world can see.
Indeed, this challenge could be an opportunity for the president to recast America's reputation, and his own. Just as it did after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the United States can play a unique leadership role in response to the food crisis. If along the way it demonstrates something positive about the American character, so much the better.
Minnesota politicians from both parties can play a crucial role. U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar, as well as Reps. Tim Walz and Colin Peterson, serve on the agriculture committees in Congress. Tim Pawlenty is not only governor of a major farm state, but also has the ear (and maybe a spot on the ticket) of Sen. John McCain, who may inherit the food crisis. Each of them should closely consider the role agriculture and energy policy play in the crisis and be willing to reconsider the fundamental food/feed/fuel debate regarding crop use. They should also help lead the shift to the next generation of biofuels that depend less on food crops.
The food crisis indicates just how interconnected Minnesota is with the world. As a well-worn slogan suggests, it's time to think globally and act locally.