We cannot go on eating like this

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It is all very awkward. China and India are getting richer. And it appears their new middle classes want all the things we want: cars, washing machines, even meat. Here in the west, we have to restrain ourselves from saying: “Stop. You can’t live like us. The planet can’t stand it. And our wallets can’t stand it. Have you seen the price of petrol?”

Global equity is the awkward issue lying behind the world food crisis. In the long run, it will also prove fundamental to discussions on energy and global warming.

But, for the moment, this difficult, abstract issue is largely obscured by the urgency of finding practical solutions to rising food prices.

Everywhere I have travelled over the past six months, the cost of food has dominated political discussion. In Pakistan I was told that, while foreigners might worry about terrorism or President Pervez Musharraf, ordinary Pakistanis were much more concerned by the soaring price of wheat. In the Middle East, the political impact of rising food prices is discussed with more urgency than Iran or the Palestinians. But food-price inflation is an issue not just in poor countries. In France, aides to President Nicolas Sarkozy point to the rising cost of food and fuel as the key to his slump in the polls. In Britain and the US, unpopular governments tell a similar story.

The food summit that starts in Rome on Tuesday will search for ways of alleviating the crisis. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, proposed some potential steps on these pages on Friday. They range from increasing emergency food aid to removing barriers to trade.

There is a strong risk that rising food prices will lead to global political friction. Look at the reaction in India to some fairly anodyne comments by President George W. Bush. He said that rising prosperity in the developing world led to people “demanding better nutrition and better food” and so “demand is higher and that causes prices to go up”.

The reaction in India was furious. Commentators railed about how much more Americans eat than Indians – chucking in a few nasty asides about fat Yanks and liposuction.

On one level, this reaction was ridiculous. Most impartial analysts, including the World Bank, agree that rising prosperity in the developing world is an important underlying cause of rising food prices.

But the emotional Indian reaction is also understandable. Any hint that the good life is available only to westerners is unacceptable. Europeans and Americans do eat much more per head than the Chinese or Indians. While rising food prices strain household budgets in the west, they risk famines in Africa and Asia.

The west is also making its own contribution to the food crisis – through subsidies for biofuels. An American cartoon recently captured this unpleasant reality. It showed a fat man extracting a corncob from an African child’s food bowl, with the speech bubble: “Excuse me, I’m going to need this to run my car.” Alex Evans of New York University suggests that these global inequalities mean that it might be more useful to think about “food democracy” than about “food security”.

The moral dilemmas thrown up by calculating per capita consumption are not confined to food. They apply just as acutely to global warming.

The US points out that China is now the world’s biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions. No global agreement on greenhouse gases will be worthwhile unless it includes China, India and other rising powers.

The Chinese respond by pointing out that the average American still has a far larger carbon footprint than the average Chinese. Like the Indians, they are angered by horrified western calculations about the environmental consequences of consumption by newly rich Asians.

The moral quandary is made all the more tricky by the fact that the stock of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – the source of today’s global warming – is overwhelmingly the product of two centuries of western industrialisation. But now that it is the developing world’s turn, the west says it is time to stop. As one Brazilian commentator puts it: “It’s like my rich neighbours have been having a huge meal. They invite me in for coffee. And then they ask me to split the bill.”

Western politicians struggle to find a convincing response to these developing-world complaints. But they will struggle just as hard to persuade their voters to cut back, to accommodate the rise of a richer Asia.

So – with food, as with climate change – we shall have to hope that technology rides to the rescue. It has happened before. At the beginning of the 20th century, the discovery of nitrogen-based chemical fertilisers massively expanded world food supplies – just as experts were fretting that the world’s booming population would lead to famine. In the 1960s, the “green revolution” allowed for a further leap in agricultural production.

The trouble is that the new technological fixes are elusive. Wider tolerance of genetically modified crops might help with food. But many of the technologies touted to cut global warming – such as solar power and carbon capture – are far from fruition.

Politicians can help the process by providing incentives for behaviour changes and investment in new technologies. However, there will be a very difficult transition as the world adjusts to higher food and energy prices and waits for new technologies to emerge and flourish.

But what is the alternative? Any solution that is based on asking India and China to stay poor is politically and morally unsustainable.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/rachman

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