Feeding countries in ethanol era

A farmer works her crop of vegetables growing amid fields of wheat in Dujiangyan, China.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Scott Jagow: Leaders from 44 countries gathered today in Rome to talk about food. The United Nations called for this summit a few months ago to discuss the use of corn and other crops for biofuel. But in the meantime, food prices have become a huge story.

We're joined by reporter Megan Williams, who is in Rome. Megan, what's priority number one at this summit now?

Megan Williams: Well you know, the top priority is feeding people. I mean, the prices of wheat and corn and rice have nearly doubled in the past year. And you know, that's some good news for farmers and traders and rich markets like the U.S., but it's been an absolute disaster for poorer countries -- particularly people who live in cities and just can't afford to buy food. And as we've heard on the news, there've been food riots in all sorts of countries.

Jagow: Mmhmm. Does the U.N. have any particular solutions it's pursuing?

Williams: Yes. What the U.N. wants right now is a $30 billion annual commitment from the richer nations to start helping feed the poorer nations. And they're not talking about direct food aid, but what they'd really like the funding to go towards is things like fertilizer, seeds, animal feeds -- to get these countries back independent and off the kind of giant food welfare system that's been set up.

Jagow: Course, there is the issue of biofuels, which was the original reason the conference was called. How much of the energy of this conference will be directed towards the U.S. policy of using corn for ethanol?

Williams: A fair part of the conference will focus on that. I mean, I think a lot of the nations are pointing their fingers at the U.S. and saying, you know, you're using too much of your corn production towards biofuel, that food, that corn is going into cars instead of feeding people. Which is a kind of simplistic view of the argument in the sense that -- you know, last year for instance, the U.S. produced enough corn to export 10 tons more, it increased feed and had more than enough for ethanol plants to absorb. The problem isn't so much consumption, but it's that the farmers are planting corn instead of soya and wheat. And if other countries had produced what they normally produced for soya and wheat, it wouldn't have been a problem. But because of weather and other issues, they didn't. And that's why people have gone hungry, and that's why, you know, the prices have soared in those commodities.

Jagow: All right. Megan Williams in Rome. Thank you.

Williams: Thanks, Scott.

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