OxFam President Weighs Food Crisis

Offenheiser analyzes globalinflation, distribution, and environmental problems

Raymond C. Offenheiser, the President of Oxfam America, an international anti-poverty organization, criticized U.S. development policy and explained the implications of the current global food crisis, in a speech last night.

As a result of rising energy costs, increasing demand from countries like China and India, and escalating production of biofuels, food prices have on average increased by 45 percent since 2006, according to figures compiled by the International Monetary Fund.

“The problem is not that there isn’t enough food, but that food is being displaced into non-food uses and the food that’s left is too expensive,” Offenheiser told the crowd in the north building of the Center for Government and International Studies.

Offenheiser said that the causes of the current crisis “have been staring us in the face for the past 10 years...a perfect storm in terms of factors coinciding to create this situation.”

Food price inflation represents a grave threat to the world’s poor, particularly families living on less than two dollars a day, he said.

Rapid inflation “forces [poor] families to make tough choices: whether to keep their child in school or to feed him or her,” said Offenheiser.

Part of the problem, according to Offenheiser, lies in current U.S. trade, agricultural, and aid policies that threaten to push millions into poverty. He said that America’s subsidies to farmers decrease prices and force farmers in poor countries out of the market.

“Farmers in the developing world don’t compete against U.S. farmers, they compete against the U.S. Treasury,” said Offenheiser.

The increased production of biofuels is another factor driving what top aid and development officials have termed a “silent tsunami” of rising food prices.

By diverting corn and other cereals to biofuel production, the market supply of cereals has diminished, contributing to increasing prices, he said.

Offenheiser said he supported moving towards so-called “second generation biofuels,” like switchgrass, that are not a part of the food supply.

He also argued that by seriously investing in global-warming adaptation in developing countries, food-supply crises can be avoided in the future.

Though he proposed potential solutions, Offenheiser also lamented the lack of reform enacted to resolve the food crisis.

“To hear that so little being done is a little disconcerting,” said Benjamin T. Hand ’12.

The event was part of a broader effort by International Relations on Campus, a subsidiary of the International Relations Council, to raise awareness of international issues on campus.

“Although half of the campus knows that the Dow closed down 700 points, few are aware of what the poverty line is or how many people live under those circumstances,” said Courtney L. Blair ’10.