The lobby of Tokyo’s majestic Imperial Hotel was people-watching central last weekend.
Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, whisked by with 20 television cameras in tow. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble zoomed by moments later with even greater hysteria. Next came Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan, Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa, Indian Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and other notables on hand for the IMF’s annual meeting.
Amid the buzz, one person was all but overlooked: Kanayo Nwanze.
It is possible you haven’t heard of the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, one of the three food agencies of the United Nations. The fund provides financing to combat the poverty threatening the foundations of the financial system that Lagarde, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their ilk think they control and understand. Here’s what many don’t get: If people such as Nwanze fail, the brand of capitalism they hold dear can’t last.
“You can’t live in an ivory tower in New York and think the rest of the world can burn and it won’t affect you,” says Nwanze, 66. “The world has become a global village. When you look back at what happened during the food-price crisis in 2007 and 2008, it was a wake-up call. It resulted in food riots in 40 cities across the world. It brought down governments. When people are hungry and angry in rural areas, it results in political instability.”
The Arab Spring movement, remember, was partly about food inflation. Such shocks deserve urgent attention from finance ministers and hedge-fund managers alike. The world has experienced three food-price spikes in the past five years. That is forcing aid agencies and food scientists to find ways to avoid future shocks and shield the most vulnerable populations from the fallout.
“The real crisis is that the era of cheap food is over,” Robert Zeigler, the director-general of the International Rice Research Institute, told me in Bangkok recently. “The question is: How do farmers keep up with demand from 7 billion people at the same time climate change wreaks havoc with production?”
As we search for answers, those making $2 a day or less face an increasingly bleak future. Any gains in the incomes of billions of people will go toward basic foodstuffs -- corn, wheat, rice, dairy products -- not education or health care.
Asia is home to hundreds of millions of those surviving on $1 or $2 a day. It is also the closest thing the world has to a growth engine with Europe crashing and America barely expanding. That’s quite a paradox: The economic foundations of the region that investors hold in such high regard is beset by hunger.
India, for example, has 1.2 billion people and corporate executives the world over can’t wait to gain greater access to its growing middle class. Yet more than three-quarters of Indians eat less than minimum targets set by the government. How India reaches its full potential when bellies are empty is anyone’s guess. Similar questions will face China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and elsewhere when food prices jump the next time around. There is no time to waste to get smarter about using land, water, energy and technology to end world hunger.
To get big things done, it is best to think small -- small farmers and rural women, two vital groups Asian governments tend to neglect.
Of all farm holdings worldwide, 85 percent are less than 2 hectares (4.9 acres) in size, and 500 million of these small farmers produce 80 percent of the food consumed in the developing world, or about one-third of humanity. It is imperative to increase their productivity and living standards so they can feed 3 billion additional mouths by 2050.
Women are the backbone of everything else. They tend to invest in child nutrition, education and health, whereas men are more likely to buy physical assets -- bicycles, furniture, tools. As Nwanze put it: “Our experience has shown across Africa and across Asia that when women are successful, the entire community is successful.” Think of the world economy as a series of building blocks. The stronger the communities, the healthier nations and markets are.
The financial illuminati came to Tokyo last week for nothing. There was no progress on ending Europe’s debt nightmare. No deals to increase economic growth. No ideas on expanding trade, addressing income inequality or reining in climate change. China didn’t even show up, throwing a childish tantrum over its dealings with Japan. The event was a dismal commentary on the state of global leadership.
Yet even worse than being weak, that leadership is dangerously distracted. It is too focused on Europe’s bond spreads and China’s currency to see that the unsexy issue of food is the real issue imperiling the future. America’s unemployment rate is important; so is Japan’s credit rating. Neither is as vital as the price of corn in Iowa or the cost of wheat in Islamabad.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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