By Sara Hooker, Global Development Issue Analyst

There is a joke in Southern Africa that vegetarians don’t exist, at least not by choice. There is even a Zimbabwean rap group dedicated solely to eulogizing chicken in their songs. Another inside joke is that you can tell who a government worker is by the girth of their waist, as people tend to literally show their power in kilos. While this may tend towards hyperbole, meat has always been an indicator of wealth in Africa. Unfortunately this may no longer be the case. Grain, long a diet staple, is taking over as a luxury.

Last week in Rome, from October 11th to the 16th, some of the world’s most accomplished academics on food security convened for the annual committee on World Food Security. While the verdict is still out on their performance (the CFS chairperson described it as a ‘rich and lively session’ which in UN speak means there were probably not any sweeping reforms) it is clear it is a necessary dialogue to maintain.

This is because food insecurity is a global issue with global roots. Yes, old school reasons like weather still play a part (look at the situation of Pakistan’s wheat farmers right now) and there are often clear cut reasons for food insecurity such as Mugabe’s disastrous expulsion of white farmers in Zimbabwe in 2000 that decimated agricultural output, but increasingly it is an argument where numbers are the culprit. Specifically, the number of people.

As millions of people move into the middle class in emerging countries, they want the trappings to go with it. One of these trappings is a changing diet causing demand to soar for meat and grains while significant supply side bottlenecks remain in place. Other factors are not helping. A spending frenzy on cars has created not only the longest traffic jams on record (Beijing’s new claim to fame at 60miles) but also huge demand for fuel. One of the newest innovations for meeting this demand is burning grain to produce ethanol (Brazil is the biggest fan, with the US catching up). This diverts food to create fuel, constricting supply and forcing prices of wheat upwards.

So what to do? Demand patterns are likely to stay the same and rise. So the problem should be met on the supply side. Firstly, the world is too dependent on the agricultural prowess of a few developed countries, (for instance the U.S currently provides 60% of total exports) which means small changes in their supply have huge repercussions in global markets (here’s an interesting article on this). More should be done to improve community level farming in developing countries which means providing market incentives. Food, whether aid or not, should not be dumped in these markets. Rather, tariffs, acknowledged or not, should be removed.

This, unfortunately, is a task the UN has not shown itself capable of achieving, no matter how many committees in exotic locations it seems to convene.