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A Jekyll and Hyde food price index

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FAO's usual winsome twosome, the food price index and food commodity price index charts.

FAO’s usual winsome twosome, the food price index and food commodity price index charts.

Why does the perversity of international food price monitoring continue when all evidence tells us food price inflation is raging just as it was in 2007-08? Here is an example of how persistent this perversity is.

Maize in Malawi at 280%, maize in Tanzania at 110%, maize in Mozambique at 60%, maize in Zambia at 50%. Wheat in Tajikistan and in Russia at 55%, wheat in Kyrgystan and Afghanistan at 40%, rice in Myanmar at 35%. Maize in Haiti at 55%, maize in Honduras at 40%, wheat and rice in Brazil at 30%, maize in Nicaragua at 30%, rice in Bolivia at 25%.

Those are the annual increases in the prices of these cereals in the countries named. The estimates come from the charts found in the FAO Global Food Price Monitor for 2013 May (which has prices for up to April). The charts however are at the end of the Monitor. On the first page, the Monitor offers very short summaries. Like this one:

“In Eastern Africa, maize prices mostly strengthened for the second consecutive month following seasonable patterns. However, prices stabilized or started to decline in some countries where new harvests are about to start.” Is that what is being described with a 110% increase in Tanzania?

Or this one:

“In Asia, domestic prices of rice and wheat generally weakened with the arrival of the 2013 early season rice and winter wheat harvests.” Is that what is being described with a 35% increase in Myanmar?

Or even this one:

What FAO's own charts tell us about rising food prices for staples worldwide. These are from the FAO Global Food Price Monitor for 2013 May.

What FAO’s own charts tell us about rising food prices for staples worldwide. These are from the FAO Global Food Price Monitor for 2013 May.

“In Central America, maize prices strengthened in April with the onset of the lean season and in some countries were at high levels. Bean prices remained low, pressured by abundant supplies from bumper crops in the 2012-13 cropping season.” Is that what is being described with a 40% increase in Honduras?

Who are these summaries really for and why does FAO persist in releasing to the public these misleading pictures of food prices (when it means export prices), and especially when its own price monitoring tools tell us very clearly that many many people are struggling under crushing inflation in the prices of food staples?

To take the food price opera further, this is what the FAO Food Price Indexwhich is one of the world’s primary indices and referred to thousands of times a day by planners, the food industry, policy-makers, bankers (always bankers), commodity traders, foreign exchange brokers, bond market artists and rogues, warehousing tycoons, the purveyors of genetically modified seed, the cigar-smoking CEOs of grain trading companies, and the smarmy corrupt political cronies of all of the above – says about cereals:

“The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 234.6 points in April, down 10 points (4.1%) from March, but nearly 11 points (4.9%) above the corresponding period last year. Most of the decline in April was triggered by weaker maize prices on expectation of higher closing stocks and favourable 2013 crop prospects. Wheat prices changed little, as the downward pressure stemming from expectation of larger inventories was offset by the upward pressure resulting from concern over the poor growing conditions and spring crop planting delays in the United States. Rice prices were marginally down …”

Read that again, 4.9% above the corresponding period last year. The smallest of the annual percentage increases in the second paragraph of this posting is five times as much as 4.9% which is why we must ask FAO, again and again, who the beneficiaries of this large international effort to collect and distribute food prices really are.

Not the populations of Mzuzu, Kampala and Milange or Jalalabad, Yangon and Sughd, or Tegucigalpa, Sao Paulo and Jacmel, all of whom must find their own means of measuring the burdens of food price increases, and who have in the last year, cut down on health care and perhaps even the education of their children, only to not go hungry too often, too painfully.

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The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya, and chemodiversity

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The Kallawaya are an itinerant community of healers and herbalists living in the Bolvian Andes. The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Photo: UNESCO/J Tubiana

The Kallawaya are an itinerant community of healers and herbalists living in the Bolvian Andes. The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Photo: UNESCO/J Tubiana

In a short and insightful commentary in the latest issue of the Unesco Courier, Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani has discussed ‘chemodiversity’ as being “one component of biodiversity”. It’s a truth we often miss or overlook. The latest issue of the Unesco Courier, 2001 January-March, celebrates 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry.

Since the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1992), da Silva Bolzani has written, the exploitation of natural resources and the socio-economic benefits of bioprospecting have become increasingly poignant issues. One of the principal goals of the Convention on biological diversity, which was adopted at the Summit, is “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.” But bioprospecting, which consists of making an inventory of the components of biodiversity with a view to ensuring their conservation and sustainable use, has, on the contrary, not ceased to be misused to further the interests of industry, which often patents the substances as they are found.

The tenth Conference of Parties to the Convention, held in Nagoya (Japan) in October this year, will change the picture, though, as it reached a legally binding agreement on the fair and equitable use of genetic resources. As from 2012, this Protocol will regulate commercial and scientific relations between countries which possess not only most of the organic substances, but also the knowledge – often non-scientific – surrounding these resources, and those countries wishing to use them for industrial purposes. A new page has turned in the history of the exploitation of the extraordinary chemodiversity of so-called ‘megadiverse’ countries.

Chemodiversity is one component of biodiversity. Secondary metabolites – alkaloids, lignans, terpenes, phenylpropanoids, tanins, latex, resins and the thousands of other substances identified so far – which have a whole host of functions in the life of plants, are also playing a crucial role in the development of new drugs. And, although we are living in the era of combinatory chemistry, with high-speed screening and molecular engineering, we still continue to turn to nature for the raw materials behind many medically and economically successful new treatments. Nature has provided over half of the chemical substances that have been approved by regulatory bodies across the world over the past 40 years.

[Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani is Professor of Chemistry at the Institute of Chemistry-UNESP, (Araraquara, Sao Paulo, Brazil) and Past President of the Brazilian Chemical Society (2008 – 2010)]