"Let them eat cake" was Marie Antoinette's recommendation.
While her suggestion - which put an end to the queen, not to her subjects' hunger - has not been repeated aloud by the world leaders who have faced the growing global food shortage since the French Revolution, her indifference has.
The recurring failure of negotiations on an international food strategy and establishment of world grain reserves are cited by Third World leaders with starving populations and by agricultural economists from both the developed and developing countries as a measure of the lack of concern. The tendency of diplomats and government officials to choose luxurious forms and elaborate menus for such talks also has [WORD ILLEGIBLE] criticism.
Yet another attempt at drawing attention to the food shortage issue begins Wednesday when agriculture ministers from more than 30 nations participate in the third World Food Council session in Manila.
United States officials involved in the development of the American position papers to be presented there stressed that the council is not a negotiating body.
"We want to get across the idea that we should use the conference as a vehicle for focusing attention on the issue of hunger and urge countries to commitments to solve the problem without questioning their motives for doing so," one U.S. delegate said last week. "We're trying to make the development of a global food strategy less confrontational."
Agriculture secretary Bob Bergland, who is heading the U.S. delegation, has said he will not disclose many of the details of the U.S. food strategy at the Manila talks.According to his aides, he will renew the Carter administration's pledge of support for such negotiations and will make a strong case for the establishment of world grain reserves.
The forum for hard bargaining remains the international Wheat Council, with other international agencies likely to be involved in setting up a major food program.
Rising U.S. grain stockpiles - especially of wheat - and the latest forecasts for a bumper 1977-78 world harvest of wheat, corn, soybeans and other food grains make an international program all the more urgent, according to Bergland.
The boom-bust cycle which prevails in agricultural commodities from wheat to coffee hurts the farmer as well as the consumer. Large domestic surpluses depress the price paid to farmers for their crops. The sharp drop in wheat prices this year has triggered demands for additional federal farm assistance and a higher support price for wheat. Lower prices make it cheaper for developing nations, who import large amounts of grain, to feed their populations.
When crop yields are reduced because of weather, natural disasters or unusually heavy export activity, the farmer enjoys higher prices and importing countries cannot afford to buy as much grain. A grain reserves system could set up a bank of sorts, where countries could store crops from bumper harvests and withdraw portions during a shortage.
According to an Agriculture Department forecast released last week, total world grain production for the 1977-78 crop year, which begins July 1, is estimated at 1.087 billion metric tons, 1.6 per cent less than the previous year's record harvest.
Global grain consumption for the coming year is estimated at 1.057 billion metric tons. The projection means that, for the second consecutive year, the world will produce more grain than it eats.
Agriculture officials said if the weather does not worsen dramatically during the growing season, the world grain reserve on July 1, 1978, could be a record of 202.1 million metric tons, up 17.6 per cent from the 171.8 million metric tons estimated for the reserve this July 1.
While the abundance of grain this year and next will not ward off the specter of hunger which haunts millions, it could move forward the grain reserves negotiations. As one agricultural economist noted, "Producing nations don't want to talk about food banks when there's a crop shortage forecast."
Negotiations on a new International Wheat Agreement repeatedly have been blocked by most members' rejection of the U.S. proposal to establish grain reserves based on quantities alone. Other wheat council members favor reserves provisions based on prices and quantities.
The Carter administration's approval of a domestic, farmer-held reserve system for wheat and rice, whose prices are depressed due to oversupply, has been hailed by some liberal economists as a move which might be adapted to international commodities.
In a recent speech before the National Agri-Marketing Association, Howard Hjort, USDA's director of agricultural economics, said the domestic program "may enhance the development of an international reserve system."
He said the program is only "a partial, positive step leading to the development of an international system." The world reserves "must be a cooperative and participative venture," he said" . . . the United States will not be the granary for the world."