Part 2 transcript

Robert Manne:

The second speaker is the Reverend Tim Costello or I prefer to say, Tim Costello.  I think when the history of the last quarter century or so of Australia is written, Tim will have a very important place as a kind of moral compass or as a beacon for the issues that were of moral centrality in this period of our history.  Tim has played a very big role in questions of urban life and was even at one stage mayor of St Kilda I believe.  But he’s also, on the issues that I think have been absolutely fundamental, like the treatment of asylum seekers or reconciliation and indigenous questions, Tim has also been a central figure.  Some years ago he moved to head World Vision Australia and I think all of you will be aware that he has been probably the most important spokesperson for those organisations who are trying to rally Australian people to generosity when there are crises but also develop a consciousness to do with questions of global inequality and global poverty.  Tim’s written a number of books, he’s a Member of the Order of Australia, but I think his most important function has been as a voice for a more humane Australia.  I know he’s been at La Trobe before, but it’s my very, very great pleasure to welcome him today.

Tim Costello:

Well thank you so much for that introduction Robert.  It’s pretty much as I wrote it really.  Let me just say that it is always an honour to be both at La Trobe and on a platform with Robert and some of the things he was very generously saying about me are certainly reciprocated in terms of his courage in the stand that he’s taken on issues.  You’re right, I was mayor of St Kilda.  I did such a good job they abolished the whole council.  I am the last mayor ever of St Kilda, so I’ve had my moments in public life.

I think you’ve had a very significant overview, none of which I disagree.  I might just bring this back home and say now and then when we see some food prices rising in Australia, Australians still don’t make the connection that, if prices go up here, at worst we eat out less, or we buy maybe, and this is good, less takeaway.  For the poor who Oxfam, World Vision and other agencies work for, when food prices go up, they don’t eat.  And that moral connection in terms of this waterbed of price sensitivity and supply and demand is incredibly important to come home.  We live within our own bubble.  And I was thinking about this morning as I was listening to AM and the discovery now that maybe junk food is addictive and we need to treat people who eat junk food in the same way we treat smokers or drug addicts, and the sort of debates within our bubble, without making the connection about obesity and any number of diets that we all have a look at, and the extraordinary crisis, the moral seriousness and gravity of a global food crisis.  We don’t join the dots and the connections.  I say this of myself.  I thankfully aren’t a great eater of junk food but I remember rushing into a Hungry Jack’s one day – I hadn’t eaten, I was in a hurry, I had to get to a meeting.  I remember ordering a burger, fries and a Coke and being fast food, I remember vividly the woman behind the counter saying to me, “There’ll be a three minute wait for the burger.”  I say to my shame, I felt this rage rise up inside me.  I actually heard myself say, “Excuse me, but why the delay?”  She was very professional.  She looked straight back at me and very coolly said: “Because we’re cooking the food.”  I remember thinking “What are you cooking the food for?  This is meant to be fast, I’m in a hurry, and then sanity broke in, I thought, calm down, Tim, calm down.  Even at a fast food place they probably have to cook the food.”  Well, it’s surreal and it’s mad and I think it illustrates some of the bubble of our world which is so isolated and connected from the global food crisis.

Just today I did a quick skim of the papers around the world.  The Moscow Times, the BRIC countries agree food security strategy, the BRIC countries being Brazil, Russia, India and China.  Agreed to combat hunger and to boost efforts to promote food security.  According to a strategy signed by the countries’

Agricultural Ministers in Moscow on Friday.  In order to promote food security, it is necessary to have a well-functioning worldwide food market.  And a trade system based on the principles of justice and freedom from discrimination.  Something I think we’d agree with.  This is what the declaration said:  Therefore speeding up the accomplishment of the WTO, Doha round of talks is a primary task.  The Doha Round which is sometimes called the Development Round.  So in the Moscow Times today the countries collectively known as BRIC agreed on Friday to establish an agricultural information data base that would help countries compute, supply and demand, and establish green reserves.  From India, in the Hindu, the headline today:  Pathway to Food Security For All. 

And this is talking about in India a proposed Food Security Bill and a three-pronged strategy of providing public distribution of low-cost food grains to the needy and the delivery of nutrition safety net programs.  This is all based on Article 21 of the Constitution which says in India, and the Supreme Court has added:  The right to food as a fundamental requirement for the right to life.  So here is a magnificent set of rights.  It goes on however:  Many steps have been taken since Independence to adopt Mahatma Gandhi’s advice for ??, [7.39] I don’t know if that’s the right pronunciation, and approach to eliminate hunger.  In spite of numerous measures and programs, the number of undernourished has increased from 210 million in 1990-1992, to 252 million in 2004-2006.  India has about half the world’s undernourished children.  Also, there has been a general decline in per capita calorie consumption in recent decades.

Grain mountains and hungry millions continue to co-exist.  Just the picture of that is disturbing, isn’t it?  In spite of them listing all the things that they’re doing, the Hindu then says the situation in the field of child nutrition remains bleak.  The percentage of children below five years of age who are underweight is now 42.5%.  The percentage of children below three years who are undernourished is 40%. 

From a news alert on Yemen, the 250,000 internally displaced people dependent on food banks and supplies of aid agencies have had their rations cut.  Why?  Because we ran out of grain, beans, sugar and oil ten days ago.  Instead of two sacks of grain and 10kg of beans, we received one sack and 5kg, which all was finished in twelve days. 

And then here in Australia the headline coming out today from AAP – Barnaby Joyce puts food security above the environment.  Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce has risked inflaming tensions with Liberal MPs and Opposition [Leader] Tony Abbott, saying the priority for order policy must be guaranteeing food production with environment coming second.  The article goes on to talk about Mr Abbott competing in the gruelling Iron Man event yesterday.

Well, without going over the ground that you’ve already heard and I was just going to take you through some of the figures of where staple prices have gone up, though there has been a little bit of a drop from the spikes, what you are seeing is discussion, but not breakthrough.  It’s on the agendas, but it still doesn’t seem to have the moral urgency that a global food crisis should have.  We would simply say about a Barnaby comment, that missing the link between the environment and food security is just a profound miss.  As we know, some of the response to environmental challenges with the massive shifts to bio-fuels, particularly in the US, Brazil and elsewhere, only intensifies the food crisis.  One response, without thinking of the ripple effect.  What we certainly know with the global financial crisis, Bob Zoellick of the World Bank I think put it very well when he said: “450,000 children who would not have died because of lack of food, but for the impact of the global financial crisis on food. ”  450,000 kids will die this year.  When we worry about our super levels back to 2003 and maybe some price rises in buying your potatoes and bread, we don’t actually see that this is also costing lives.

I agree with the last speaker and we’ll allow a bit of time for discussion about this, that this has got to be both a political response as well as a market response.  We now profoundly know that markets fail with the aggregation of power in large scale agriculture, the trust-me of markets simply isn’t sufficient.  We certainly know that there has been reform happening with the world food program.  Often they had been dumping too much food, suppressing local markets.  Josette Sheeran of the WFP has really been starting to do a good job of saying:  “We have seen the unintended effects of World Food Program just responding to hunger in a way that kills off incentive.”  What we know about the World Food Program is when you try and run a global reach that the World Food Program has, and it only reaches under 20% of the nearly billion people who lack food security.  It’s actually lower than 20%.  And it tries to do that on only eleven weeks ever secure funding.  If you listen to Josette Sheeran, she will tell you how impossible the job is, because governments make promises on the never never, they don’t actually keep their funding promises in time, you’ll have to ship grain that could be bought elsewhere much closer to Africa, from Brazil, because cheques weren’t presented for the World Food Program to do its job. 

The politics of food is terrible.  The patchiness of it is terrible. Often in countries of great hunger, there’s actually a harvest storage, over supply in another area of the country.  One of the most important things you can do is actually build a bridge, a road, to allow there to be some coherence in dealing with this patchiness. 

But with a third speaker to come and a little bit of time for questions, let’s me leave it there.  But  say, joining dots, saying this is a morally serious crisis, that it goes to our humanity is really important and I want to thank you for coming out to this discussion.