The United Nations is having another of its conference extravaganzas in November. The World Food Summit will be convened in Rome.
Food is a subject worthy of a summit. Eight hundred million people - 15 percent of the world's population - suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition. The United States Department of Agriculture warns of a "looming mismatch between food-aid resources and needs." Agricultural production this year is down, surpluses are rapidly declining, and prices are at record-high levels.
But the countries going to the summit show few signs of taking decisive action toward solving the problem of world hunger. The US chants free-trade and free-market mantras. Yet these won't work for people with no money and nothing to trade. We doubt a poor farmer in Chad would be heartened by a stirring call for "appropriate policies ... for improved food security." The world community needs to ensure that adequate food exists and will continue to exist for those who fall out of the market system - refugees, displaced persons, and the destitute.
The experts say world food production is still adequate, although declining or barely keeping pace relative to the need. A major problem is distribution. There's too much food in the US and too little in Chad. The farmer in Chad can't raise enough food to feed a family and doesn't have any money to buy more.
The solution to world hunger in the short term seems to be better distribution through increased food assistance. Over the long term, the US's prescription of free-market and free-trade policies can begin to work. Food assistance, however, is declining - from 15 million tons of grain in 1992-93 to 8 million tons in 1994-95. The need, conversely, will increase - from 15 million tons in 1996 to a projected 27 million tons in 2005.
What to do? One idea is to create a global food reserve so that food, mostly grain, is immediately available to transport and distribute to starving people. The US and other food-surplus countries pledge the food; Japan and other rich but food-deficit nations pledge money for transport and distribution.
The global food reserve would contain an initial 10 million metric tons of food. It would be worth about $2.5 billion but amount to only 0.5 percent of world grain production.
The food reserve wouldn't just sit idle. Food would be withdrawn continuously (and immediately replaced) to help meet the emergency needs of starving people, refugees, and displaced persons, and to support food-for-work and other projects to supplement poor farmers' income.
With a global food reserve we would have a known minimum quantity of food readily available from year to year. We would be prepared to meet humanitarian emergencies rather than scrambling to find resources after an emergency has already occurred, as we do now.
But bureaucrats shiver when the subject of a food reserve comes up. They visualize silos full of molding grain and monthly storage charges. That need not be. Futures, hedging, buying forward, and other mechanisms can ensure a supply of food when it's needed.
The World Food Summit is the next, best chance for world leaders to do something to solve the awful - and growing - problem of world hunger. The UN and its member states should seriously consider creating better programs for making sure that food gets where it's most needed when it's most needed.
The farmer in Chad is not going to be helped by rhetoric in Rome - unless it puts more food on that farmer's table now and gives him or her an opportunity to make some money in the future.
*Larry Thompson is the senior associate of Refugees International, a Washington-based refugee advocacy organization.