Klaus Töpfer had already found his calling before he saw people in Kenya trying to make food grow in poor, dry earth.
His field is the environment, energy and feeding the world.
Töpfer was Germany’s environment minister and he headed the United Nations Environment Programme.
Two years ago he set up a think-tank for climate and sustainability research, the IASS in Potsdam.
Sigrid Ulrich, euronews: “Mr. Töpfer, you already know that every three or four seconds a human being dies through lack of food. Earlier this year you were very critical of food speculation but astonishingly not for humanitarian reasons but because of global security. What do you mean?”
“These things are very closely connected. We see massive speculation. We see the poorest of the poor will be most severely hit by that.
“You and I spend up to 13 percent of our monthly income on food, for them it is up to 70 percent.
If prices increase, the subsistence level is affected immediately.
“On the other hand, we know that where food is scarce people rise up. That can trigger revolts. It’s very, very understandable.
“The two are linked very closely, we have seen food crises and riots not long ago in some African countries and we need to know that this kind of destabilisation of entire societies concerns us all.”
euronews: “Most speculators are not gamblers. They just add two and two, they see certain imbalances, and they benefit from that. To what extent are speculators responsible for rising food prices?”
“It is a very relevant part of price fluctuations.
Fluctuations are dramatic and largely for highly speculative reasons. You also have to add a trend that leads to rising food prices.
“But the volatility is above all the result of speculative actions. We live in a world where there is a lot of money looking for a save haven; at the same time, many investors worry about a possible breakdown of the financial system. So they invade the commodity markets.
“So we see extensive price bubbles which are to be avoided at all costs. You mentioned the (deaths every) three seconds. We know that there are about one billion people around the world who go to bed hungry, who do not know where to get food from. The TV pictures we see are more and more dramatic. Now in the Horn of Africa – we see all that happening on our doorstep.
“And at the same time we live in a society which throws away 20 million tons of food every year. Speculation is not just about food, but to a large extent about land too. So we can’t see speculation as an isolated phenomenon. We have to integrate it into the overall development of food markets.”
euronews: “The French President Nicolas Sarkozy said stabilisation of food prices is a priority for his G20 presidency. But the people who will meet are exactly the same people who not long ago bailed out banks with hundreds of billions of euros and dollars – creating all this speculative money. You’re an economist – somewhere this money bubble is going to burst, because nothing was being produced…”
“First of all, it is encouraging that Sarkozy has helped give this issue an urgency with his public and political decision.
“There will be no jump from zero to 100. Of course we are not satisfied with some issues – we seem to pay too little attention to productivity: the productivity of small farmers has to be strengthened especially.
“We don’t want to see just industrialised agriculture promoted – but in a world with nine or 10 billion people you have also to rely on them.”
“At our organisation — World Food Aid — we principally try to help people to help themselves. And to me the argument does not hold up: rising agricultural prices had major advantages for producers, who can sell for higher prices. That’s wrong, to put it politely.
“We know that rising raw material costs and higher energy prices lead to a massive rise in production costs – exceeding the rise in sales prices. So very often these small farmers end up getting much less than before and they have to buy food because their harvest is too small. And so rising agricultural prices hit them again.
“All these things are not yet being given enough significance at the G20.
“But we really welcome that the issue has finally arrived where it belongs, on the agenda of those who can, for instance, make speculation transparent, who can intervene, and hopefully will also have to intervene, simply because they are forced to by the people and by imminent food riots that concern us all.
“Derivatives and stock exchanges didn’t just fall out of the sky, they are man-made. And so there has to be a political commitment to act when they fail.”
euronews: “We have not yet discussed consumer habits in industrialised countries. There are two controversial topics: one is biofuel – more precisely agricultural fuel – “bio” sounds somehow very positive. And the second is the structure of consumption: to produce a kilo of meat requires 100, 200 times more water and soil …..”
“… and energy.”
euronews: |… and energy compared to a kilo of grain.”
“Yes, these two issues are of the utmost importance. Our lifestyle is, of course, particularly heavy on resources, in terms of commodities, energy and raw materials of all kinds.
“If everyone in the world wanted to eat as we do, there would be a dramatic shortfall straightaway. We know that the less you eat meat - which is also harmful to our climate - the more resource-friendly you are. “
euronews: “Going back to eating habits – how many times a week is there meat on the table in the Töpfer household?”
“There is relatively little meat. But that is not really down to me. My wife very much prefers salads and loves vegetarian products.
“I am also a supporter of the so-called 100-mile diet, that means eating only what was produced within 100 miles around. That is not so easy to do. But we try to eat seasonally. So we do not think it’s very important to have strawberries or things like that on the table at this time of the year.”
Tackling speculators on food prices