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With Global Hunger Up, G-20 Talks Food Security

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It was a close vote, but the United Nations Human Rights Council late last week endorsed the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender people for the first time. We'll ask a top State Department official what it all means and how that came about. That's coming up.

But first, to another issue with local and global implications - food. The World Bank says that since this last time last year wheat prices have more than doubled and the price of corn, sugar, rice, and oil have skyrocketed. That means millions more people are struggling to feed their families or just going hungry.

In Senegal, wife and mother Fatou Bintou Ndiaye told Germany's public broadcaster Deutsche Welle that she joined food protests in the streets of Dakar earlier this year.


FATOU BINTOU NDIAYE: (Through translator) Rice is expensive. Oil is expensive. Sugar is expensive. All of these price hikes are making life really difficult for us women. A kilogram of vegetables can cost 400 franc today, and two or even three times as much tomorrow. Enough is enough.

MARTIN: The U.N.'s top food security expert warns that shortages of food, water, and power right now maybe could see a repeat of the 2008 crisis that led to riots on three continents.

The situation has brought together the agriculture secretaries and ministers from the top 20 economies in the world, the G-20. They're in Paris today and tomorrow and that's where we called David Nabarro, the United Nations special representative on food security and nutrition. He's with us from there. Thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Could you just clarify one thing for us? I think many people are used to talking about hunger, but now we talk about food security. What's the difference?

NABARRO: In fact, hunger is the outcome of a situation where people do not have the food that they need in order to be able to enjoy a full life. And in practice, that's represented as hunger. It means you're feeling hungry because you've gone without food.

But because that's a subjective definition, we're now shifting to the term food security, which is having food available when you need it, being able to buy it so that it makes sure that you're properly nourished.

MARTIN: Give us a sense, if you would, of what the ministers hope to accomplish in this two-day meeting. What's specifically on their agenda?

NABARRO: Well, we've been seeing for the last 30 years that food prices were surprisingly low in most world markets. Also, there was unfortunately quite high levels of hunger and food insecurity. But in general, these were not catching the attention of decision makers.

And these ministers who are coming together now are realizing that there's things really wrong with the world food systems. That there is still far too many hungry, many more are malnourished and what they want to do is to develop better policies that ensure food security for everybody.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that there are actually some fairly deep philosophical differences among the ministers about what's behind this crisis. For example, the French hosts say that the global food crisis can't be attributed to a simple lack of food. They attribute this to speculators and others who are taking positions on future food prices to make money.

Whereas the United Kingdom, among others, believes that the issue is increasing agricultural output. I presume that there are even more opinions with 20 people participating in the meeting. Do you agree that there are these philosophical differences and can they really bridge those in two days?

NABARRO: Well, they're not so much philosophical differences. There are differences of judgment about what is behind the current rising food prices and also volatility on markets. There's also differences of opinion on what's to be done about them.

The kind of issues you've identified, the basic shortage of overall food production, the problems of recent weather changes that have led to breakdowns, and particularly the wheat production system that's led to rising prices. The increasing demands on food from populations that are growing, and also from things like biofuel production, and then the impact of speculators who can accentuate the ups and downs of food prices.

All of these are being considered and at the same time we're saying what needs to be done about it. And the ministers see a need to boost agricultural production, particularly in the world's poorest countries, but not by creating great big industrial farms but by investing in production by the small farmers who basically provide about 80 percent of the world's food for the poor countries.

And, secondly, trying to make sure that trading systems work much better so that between countries and then between blocks of countries, food can move when it's needed where it's needed. It's actually very exciting to see that these countries are coming together taking this massive issue seriously and are saying we'll work with the United Nations and other international organizations to get it right.

MARTIN: David Nabarro is the United Nations special representative on food security and nutrition. He was kind enough to break away from the G-20 gathering of agricultural ministers in Paris to join us by phone. Mr. Nabarro, thank you so much for joining us.

NABARRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.