Indians bristle at U.S. criticism on food prices

Tehran Times, May 15, 2008

By Heather Timmons

Instead of blaming India and other developing nations for the rise in food prices, Americans should rethink their energy policy and go on a diet, say a growing number of politicians, economists and academics in New Delhi.

Criticism of the United States has ballooned in India recently, particularly after the Bush administration seemed to blame India’s increasing middle class and prosperity for rising food prices. Critics from India seem to be asking one underlying question: “Why do Americans think they deserve to eat more than Indians?”

The food problem has “clearly” been created by Americans, who are eating 50 percent more calories than the average person in India, said Pradeep Mehta, the secretary general of CUTS Center for International Trade, Economics and Environment, a private economic research organization based in India with offices in Kenya, Zambia, Vietnam and Britain.

If Americans were to slim down to even the middle-class weight in India, “many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates,” Mehta said. The money Americans spend on liposuction to get rid of their excess fat could be funneled to famine victims instead, he added.

Developing nations like China and India have long been blamed for everything from the rising cost of commodities to global warming, because they are consuming more goods and fuels than ever before. But Indians from the prime minister’s office on down never fail to point out that per capita, India uses far fewer commodities and pollutes far less than the West, and particularly the United States.

Many Indians felt that the remarks of President George W. Bush on May 2 were more of the same, though this time they seemed to breed a widespread sense of “We’re not going to take this anymore.” During a news conference in Missouri, Bush mentioned India’s growing middle class, and said “when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up.” This came on the heels of a similar statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that had already upset many in India.

Americans eat an average of 3,770 calories per capita a day, the highest amount in the world, according to data from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, compared to 2,440 calories in India. They are also the largest per capita consumers in any major economy of beef, the most energy-intensive common food source, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The United States and Canada top the world in oil consumption per person, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“George Bush has never been known for his knowledge of economics,” Jairam Ramesh, the minister of state for commerce, told The Press Trust of India after Bush’s remarks, which he said proved again how “comprehensively wrong” Bush is.

“To say that demand for food in India is causing increase in global food prices is completely wrong,” Ramesh said.

Politicians and academics in India cite various other reasons: diversion of arable land in the United States and Europe into ethanol production; trade subsidies by the United States and Europe; and the dollar’s decline.

Subsidies to Western farmers have undercut agricultural production in fertile areas of Africa for decades, Kamal Nath, India’s minister for commerce and industry, said by telephone. Meanwhile, he added, Americans waste more food than people in many other countries, in part because they buy in such large quantities.

The United States is responsible “many times more” than India for the world food crisis because of its higher food consumption, said Ramesh Chand, an economist with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which advises India’s government on farming policy.

The Bush administration responded to the criticism from India with calls for a truce. Bush is a “great friend and admirer” of India, said David Mulford, the U.S. ambassador to India. He added that he thought “this is a time for increased cooperation among nations to solve this problem and that hostile political commentary is not productive.”

A White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel said, “We think it is a good thing countries are developing, that more and more people have higher standards of living.”

Blaming India’s growth is not only unfair but nonsensical, some economists argue. Food prices have not been continually rising with the growth of the developing world, said Ramgopal Agarwala, a former World Bank economist and senior adviser at RIS, a think tank in New Delhi.

“They were static until 2006, then in 2007 and 2008 there was a sudden spark,” he said. Meanwhile, India’s boom has been happening over the past decade. This is “not last year’s phenomena,” he said.

“I don’t know who advised the president” on his recent comments, Agarwala said, but his analysis is “sub-prime.”

Bush’s “ignorance on most matters is widely known and openly acknowledged by his own countrymen,” The Asian Age argued May 5 in an editorial, but he must not be allowed to “get away” with an attempt to “divert global attention from the truth by passing the buck on to India.”

Mehta said that his remarks on liposuction were meant to be tongue in cheek but that “politically incorrect” attitudes like Bush’s and Rice’s needed to be challenged. Rather than blaming India, Mehta said, the West should be adjusting to the changing world. “If the developing world is going to develop, demand is going to go up and there are going to be new political paradigms,” he said.

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