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In SLU visit, U.N. secretary general addresses food crisis, climate change

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2009 - U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed an audience of businesspeople, professors, and students at Saint Louis University today. Entitled “Solving the World’s Food and Hunger Problems,” his speech presented Ban’s vision for confronting the problems surrounding a worldwide rise in food prices.

“We are living in an interdependent global village,” he said. By allowing the crisis to continue, the secretary general believes it will compound the negative effects of other crises.

The secretary general’s comments follow a year of intensive focus on the threat rising food prices pose to world security. For example, between 2006 and 2008, the average world price for rice, a staple crop for many populations, rose by 217 percent, according to a U.N. study. Such increases have most harshly affected Third World countries — the U.N. says that 25 have been destabilized by food riots.

In response, in April 2008, Ban announced the formation of the Task Force on the Global Food Crisis to provide immediate emergency relief and to address the underlying causes of the rise in prices. At a news conference in Bern, Switzerland, he explained, “Without full funding of these emergency requirements, we risk again the spectre of widespread hunger, malnutrition and social unrest on an unprecedented scale.”

Later, he also noted the crisis’ ability to destabilize other aspects of the global community. “If not managed properly, it could touch off a series of related crises — affecting trade, economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world.”

The slowdown in the global economy has reversed the trend, sending food prices plummeting. Still, U.N. representatives have warned against a false sense of security, saying that the decline in price may be temporary. As of December, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that nearly 1 billion people worldwide were still undernourished.

At the same time, funding for aid projects has dried up. Today the World Food Programme announced that global food aid has hit a 20-year low. It also called for $450 million in emergency funds so that it could continue to feed the 17 million hungry people in the Horn of Africa region.

“We are still somewhere in the woods. The price spike was a reminder that world food systems have been in crisis for years,” Ban said. Of immediate food supplies, he stressed, “Those sacks of grain are an essential emergency stopgap.”

But the effects of food shortages reach beyond the present day to shape each society’s future. “Children stop growing; they are too hungry to learn,” explained Ban. As a result, in situations of widespread malnourishment, “the whole of this society becomes weak.” Without first rectifying this basic problem, poor nations cannot realistically expect long-term improvements.

The secretary general also warned that other global problems are exacerbating the food crisis. “Climate change threatens agriculture and the world food supply,” he said. “We must take urgent action.” Ban acknowledged that -- in the face of extremism, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation -- climate change, whose effects most Americans do not feel, might not be seen as immediate a threat. However, the secretary general predicted that waiting to address climate change would mean eventually launching an enormous effort. “If you take action now, [the cost] will be far less than the cost of an election.”

While acknowledging that the food crisis has affected Americans’ budgets, the secretary general questioned whether Americans truly understood the worldwide effects of both rising food prices and climate change. “The bounty of this great state, and of your country, is the envy of many countries,” he said. “But as you know many of the world’s nations and their people lack such a bounty.”

Ban praised the Obama administration’s policies, especially on climate change, but urged officials at the state and local levels to do more. “The policy may come from the United Nations, but what needs to be done should be done by the governors, the mayors, and the county executives.”

Citing his visit to Boeing earlier in the day, Ban expressed hope in changes in the business sector as well. “I am very much encouraged that all business communities are now looking at green economy, green energy and green growth,” he said.

Finally, the secretary general addressed the United States’ complicated relationship with the United Nations. “I know what I do may seem remote to you,” he said. For those skeptical that the U.N. should receive U..S money, he promised reform that would lead to “a new multilateralism.” He called for each sector of the global community to participate in solving worldwide crises and predicted that the U.N. would continue to do the same.

“To hundreds of millions of people around the world,” he explained, “the United Nations is still a beacon of hope.”

Joe Milner, a rising junior at Brown University, is an intern with the St. Louis Beacon.