Getting Your Attention: Celebrity Dictators @ FAO Food Crisis Conference

Never mind your politics and morals; whenever Hugo Chavez, Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the presidents/dictators of Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Iran, respectively) are in a room together, it’s a hot party. So what brings them all to the bacchanalia capital of the world? Nothing less than a summit on the global food crisis hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome over the next few days.

The reasons for such a conference are myriad: food prices are up 83% over three years ago, 800 million people suffer from hunger or malnutrition, and a hundred million more are now at risk. Dozens of countries have experienced food riots in the past few months, and countless lives are at stake (not to be overly dramatic).

And the causes of the price spikes are equally numerous: increased biofuel production, government agricultural subsidies, export caps, commodities speculation and rapidly increasing demand. Various delegations (like the United States and Brazil) have argued that biofuels have played less of a role than expert observers ascribe to it, but regardless, everyone recognizes that there has been a drastic and fundamental shift in the balance between what the world grows and what it eats.

Solutions, it seems, are not in short supply: end the subsidies that allow rich countries to flood poor countries with cheap grains and thereby destroy the local agriculture industry, leaving poor countries powerless and hungry when commodity prices rise! Stop using food crops for biofuels! End export quotas to maintain an open and fair commodities market! Improve developing countries’ agricultural practices through sustainable fertilization and irrigation techniques! GMO for everybody, whether they like it or not! And so forth.

But while all of these things are being repeated at the summit, nothing is new here, and it’s not like an “international law” is going to be passed that will take care of the world’s problems. For all the hoopla, the summit is basically a big brainstorm/info session. So what’s U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon’s goal in calling this meeting?

The clue is that a good chunk of the media coverage of the summit is on the three aforementioned leaders. Ahmadinejad wasted no time in denouncing Israel for somehow single-handedly causing global food crisis or whatever; Chavez (along with Brazilian president Lula) has been railing against American agricultural subsidies and other things red, white and blue; and Mugabe is a walking shitstorm between the decades of plundering Zimbabwe’s farming heartland and his most recent crime of stealing the country’s election.

Maybe what the U.N. is looking to do by inviting these incendiary figures is to create a media blitz that finally snowballs global public opinion toward materially caring about the global food crisis. You can have unified, terrified experts prattle on about how we’re dooming ourselves for years, and people only start paying attention when a flashy movie comes out (cue Al Gore); perhaps this conference will be the “Inconvenient Truth” of the global food crisis?

Various countries (the U.S. included) have plans for combating the crisis, but as long as the public is disinterested, progress will be slow going. Mugabe may be bad for Zimbabweans, but he’s great PR for man-made catastrophes like this one.

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization [Official Site]
’Act now or 290m people will go hungry’ [Scotsman]
Summit on Food Crisis Scrutinizes Causes, Solutions [NPR]
Brazilian Ethanol Doesn’t Hurt Food Output, Lula Says [Bloomberg]
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attacks Jews at UN food summit in Rome [Telegraph]
Officials Criticize Mugabe’s Presence at a U.N. Conference in Rome [NYTimes]

[Photo: Raja Islam/flickr]

Getting Your Attention: Celebrity Dictators @ FAO Food Crisis Conference