Stuart Clark has spent the past 35 years working on food issues in developing countries. He is the Senior Policy Advisor at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and Chair of the Trans-Atlantic NGO Food Aid Policy Dialogue, a consortium of European and North American NGOs dedicated to the reform of the international food aid regime. This interview was originally conducted for World Vision Canada.

Q: You wrote recently, “We have entered a new world for our food supply.” And you said we must start making changes so food doesn’t become “the new engine of global discontent.” Tell us what you mean.
A: I mean that we have gone from having predictable food surpluses pretty much all the time — a situation that began in the post–World War II period and lasted right up until the mid-part of the first decade of the 21st century — to the present, when the balance has started to tip toward unreliable surpluses and sometimes deficits.

Q: What’s caused this change?
A: It’s largely been driven by demand, chiefly as a result of the need for grains to make biofuels, corn to make ethanol and soybeans and canola to make biodiesel. And when our governments mandate that 10 percent of the gasoline that runs our cars consists of bio-fuels — that’s a huge, huge demand. The other factor has been the increasing global consumption of meat, most of which is being produced by grain-intensive methods; rather than pasture-fed meat, it’s meat that’s being raised on soybeans, corn, or in some cases, wheat.
On the supply side we’ve also had a tapering off of the growth of agricultural yields in general. Climate change, the problem of lack of sufficient water around the world and the fact that there’s not a lot of additional agricultural land to bring into production have all contributed to the tapering off of supply. The result of all this has been that market prices for food have become very volatile.

Q: If the problem is so complex, where do we begin to look for solutions?
A: The market probably needs a certain amount of regulation. And that’s where the right to food comes in. National governments must take steps to ensure their populations have access to food. That doesn’t mean they have to buy food for their people and give it to them. It does mean they ought to be very careful to not pass laws or enter into trade agreements and other things that will imperil the access of their populations to food.

Q: What can North Americans do to help ensure that people “at the bottom” have enough to eat?
A: It’s an important question to ask. Canadians consume upwards of 100 kilograms of meat products per person per year. That puts us at the top of the meat table. So just being careful about how meat is consumed is important.
It’s also important that the policies our governments put in place to turn food into fuel have some kind of regulator. When we had surpluses, the farmers were getting paid too little for their products and many were forced out of business. So the advent of bio-fuels in Canada was a pretty good news story for farmers. But we need to ensure that when prices go too high, we stop turning food into biofuel so that our cars aren’t depriving people in poorer nations from having access to adequate food.

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