Fears of global food insecurity have returned with a vengeance. In March, the United Nations World Food program warned that global food reserves were at their lowest level in thirty years and that the world must act quickly to prevent shortages. In the last two months alone the price of rice has shot up 75%, while wheat prices over the last year have risen 120%.
Last month leaders of the world's food agencies and the Food and Agriculture Organization met in Switzerland to set up a special food taskforce. The group is looking at issues ranging from farming methods and how to provide farmers with low-cost feed and fertilizer, to export tariffs that create bottlenecks in the food distribution system.
At the same time that food prices are skyrocketing, APEC member economies are having to grapple with oil prices that have risen six-fold in the past six years and are up almost a quarter since the beginning of January. Escalating oil prices have been a key factor in driving up inflation rates in many economies and people across the APEC region are being hit with record gasoline, heating and transportation costs.
APEC has been working on food and energy security issues for nearly a decade. For instance, APEC set up an agricultural technical cooperation working group
that aims to improve economic development and social welfare by promoting agricultural technical cooperation between APEC member economies. The goal is to share information and experiences in the areas of agriculture, biotechnology, animal and biogenetic resource management.
APEC also created the High Level Policy Dialogue on Agricultural Biotechnology
. This group work towards increasing the safe introduction of biotechnology products and obtaining public acceptance of these products. Now in its seventh year, the high level policy dialogue seeks to uphold the development and responsible use of agricultural biotechnology by valuing science-based regulations and standards, as well as demanding the open exchange of information to advance food safety and security, research and development, and free and open trade and investment.
With limited arable land, depleting water resources, and surging input costs resulting from higher energy prices, governments cannot afford to turn their backs on new technologies that could significantly boost crop yields, limit deforestation (and therein carbon emissions) and reduce input costs, Michael Yost, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service, told the APEC Secretariat E-newsletter.
Mr. Yost noted that yields for biotech corn and soybeans in the United States have increased 15% in the last ten years and that according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Application (ISAAA), almost 100 million farmers will plant 200 million hectares of biotech crops in 45 countries by 2015.
"Countries that immediately reject out of hand the use or importation of biotech products are restricting their own production and supply as well as contributing to tightening global supplies," he said.
"Researchers, scientists, farmers and governments must work together to ensure that consumers throughout the world can realize the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. We must have the regulations, standards, policies, and systems in place to secure continued market access, particularly in the light of rapid developments in technologies."
In February, a meeting of the APEC High Level Policy Dialogue on Agricultural Biotechnology in Lima, Peru
, underscored the important role APEC members can play in addressing food security.
During the private-sector day preceding the event, APEC members discussed issues such as the low-level presence of regulated recombinant DNA plant materials in trade, and regulations that are essential in order to govern the use of agricultural biotechnology.
Sarah Lukie, managing director of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's division for global issues and multilateral affairs, addressed the gathering to talk about ways countries can implement regulations so that the import of food will not be slowed or stopped due to the potential low-level presence of biotech products.
This thorny issue has gained increasing importance due to the current food crisis. Given the increasing number of biotech plants developed and authorized for commercialization around the globe, more and more countries will be faced with the challenge of low-level presence of biotech plant material that has been authorized in one or more countries (including the exporting country) but not in the importing country. Shipments can be stopped in some countries that don't have national guidelines on agricultural-biotech crops.
Even in the most stringent identity preservation system, a low-level presence is virtually guaranteed due to the vast infrastructure dedicated to moving grain from farms to consumers around the world, Ms. Lukie explained. For example, low-level presence can occur during crop production through pollen drift, field crops then are delivered to grain elevators, grain processors and exporters that use high-volume receiving, storage and handling systems. The very nature of plants as biological systems means that the seed itself is not 100% pure.
If grain exporters suspect there is a risk that their shipments will be held up at a particular port, they can easily switch their shipments to countries where the risk of trade disruption is lower. "They are businesses and they want to manage their levels of risk," Ms. Lukie said in a telephone interview. "If it's too risky or countries haven't thought this issue through they're going to ship it somewhere else."
It is vital that governments address regulatory policy gaps on agricultural-biotech products to avoid trade disruption of grains and other crops that may have low-level traces of biotech products, Ms. Lukie argued. Governments must create policies to manage low-level presence that is acceptable to everyone involved in the grain trade.
That's where APEC can come in. APEC member economies understand the risk - particularly in an environment where food insecurity and high energy prices are taking a toll on consumers every day.
"There wasn't a whole lot of receptivity [to our argument] until last year and the year before when economies started talking about issues around the accessibility of grain, the supply of grain, food insecurity," Ms. Lukie said from her home in Washington, D.C. "I think there's recognition more and more that as an economy they need--with limited stocks of supply--to be good customers. So they have to create a relationship with an exporting economy that works."
Ms. Lukie added that it was nice to have a discussion with governments who have already started to think about what regulations they can put in place to begin to solve the problem.
She also noted that it was refreshing to talk with representatives from APEC member economies who understood the debate and weren't motivated by political considerations.
"APEC is a great forum for us because people who go to the meetings tend to be people who don't have real political motivations about agricultural-biotech," she explained. "We find at APEC we can have more of a real discussion or a real conversation...it's a lot less government posturing and more discussion about the fact that it's a problem and what do we do about it...When we go to APEC meetings we find usually those people are from agricultural or economic or trade ministries and who see it from a different perspective."
APEC's High Level Policy Dialogue works closely with the sub-group on Research, Development and Extension of Agricultural Biotechnology (RDEAB). The RDEAB is focused on developing transparent, science-based approaches, including capacity building activities developing research on the effects of gene flow and the effects of genetically modified crops in centers of origin; and encouraging a dialogue between the private and public sectors to promote research and the development of biotechnology.
Equally important is APEC's work on energy security. Energy imports to APEC economies are projected to increase by about 92% between 2000 and 2020 as domestic supplies fail to keep pace with demand. The APEC region accounts for about 60% of world energy demand and is a net energy importer. New investment in the energy sector will exceed US$6 trillion by 2030.
APEC set up its Energy Working Group
in 1990, which seeks to maximize the energy sector's contribution to the region's economic social well-being while mitigating the environmental impact of energy supply and use. Over the last eight years, it has funded and implemented 250 projects, all of which have played a key role in furthering trade and investment opportunities in the energy sector as well as in implementing the Energy Security Initiative (ESI).
The ESI prepares APEC member economies for energy supply disruptions. It comprises short-term measures that work to promote transparency in the global oil market, information sharing and encouraging economies to have emergency mechanisms and contingency plans in place in the event of short-term supply disruptions.
Longer term, the ESI tries to facilitate investment, trade, technology cooperation, natural gas, energy efficiency, clean fossil energy, renewable energy and hydrogen and fuel cells.
Some of the other types of projects the Energy Working Group has been involved with have included analyzing the implications of different energy price practices on energy efficiency, the environment, and infrastructure; workshops with the private sector on the financing of energy efficiency, renewable energy and infrastructure projects and best practice; and analyzing opportunities for village power applications.
The EWG is assisted in its work by four expert groups that concentrate on particular strategic aspects of the EWG's agenda: clean fossil energy; energy data and analysis; energy efficiency and conservation; new and renewable energy technologies and a bio-fuels task force.
"The most important thing is that if the APEC region is to have any potential form of energy security, and as such, economic growth, there needs to be the promotion of energy markets and free-flow investment to develop energy efficiency and alternative energy sources," said Peter Slobodian, manager of APEC for the government of Australia's international energy branch of the Energy and Environment Division. "There is a study underway to look at barriers to trade...peer reviews are another way of looking at how energy is generated and utilized in communities."
This year the APEC Energy Trade and Investment Roundtable will be held from September 24-25 in Cairns, Queensland. The roundtable will encourage APEC economies to assess the benefits and opportunities of addressing identified barriers to energy trade and investment.
Improving energy efficiency and enhancing food security by addressing trade barrier issues surrounding biotech crops and are only just a few of the social dimensions of the APEC agenda.
The upcoming meetings on energy trade and investment in Cairns - like APEC's work on other social aspects of trade such as education, health, environmental degradation, eco-tourism and addressing the digital divide--will in true APEC style highlight best practices for economies to unilaterally address these challenges on their own.