Indians Find US at Fault in Food Cost

The New York Times, May 14, 2008

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.

That has been the response, basically, of a growing number of politicians, economists and academics in this country, who are angry at statements by top United States officials that India’s rising prosperity is to blame for food inflation.

The debate has sometimes devolved into what sounded like petty playground taunts over who are the real gluttons devouring the world’s resources.

For instance, Pradeep S. Mehta, secretary general of the center for international trade, economics and the environment of CUTS International, an independent research institute based here, said that if Americans slimmed down to the weight of middle-class Indians, “many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates.”

He added, archly, that the money spent in the United States on liposuction to get rid of fat from excess consumption could be funneled to feed famine victims.

Mr. Mehta’s comments may sound like the macroeconomic equivalent of “so’s your old man,” but they reflect genuine outrage — and ballooning criticism — toward the United States in particular, over recent remarks by President Bush.

After a news conference in Missouri on May 2, he was quoted as saying of India’s burgeoning middle class, “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.”

The comments, widely reported in the developing world, followed a statement on the subject by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that had upset many Indians.

In response to the president’s remarks, a ranking official in the commerce ministry, Jairam Ramesh, told the Press Trust of India, “George Bush has never been known for his knowledge of economics,” and the remarks proved again how “comprehensively wrong” he is.

The Asian Age, a newspaper based here, argued in an editorial last week that Mr. Bush’s “ignorance on most matters is widely known and openly acknowledged by his own countrymen,” and that he must not be allowed to “get away” with an effort to “divert global attention from the truth by passing the buck on to India.”

The developing nations, and in particular China and India, are being blamed for global problems, including the rising cost of commodities and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, because they are consuming more goods and fuel than ever before. But Indians from the prime minister’s office on down frequently point out that per capita, India uses far lower quantities of commodities and pollutes far less than nations in the West, particularly the United States.

Explaining the food price increases, Indian politicians and academics cite consumption in the United States; the West’s diversion of arable land into the production of ethanol and other biofuels; agricultural subsidies and trade barriers from Washington and the European Union; and finally the decline in the exchange rate of the dollar.

There may be some foundation to Indians’ accusations of hypocrisy by the West. The United States uses — or throws away — 3,770 calories a person each day, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization collected in 2001-3, compared with 2,440 calories per person in India. Americans are also the largest per capita consumers in any major economy of the most energy-intensive common food source, beef, the Agriculture Department says.

And the United States and Canada lead the world in oil consumption per person, according to the Energy Information Administration, an Energy Department agency.

When it comes to trade, Western farming subsidies undercut agricultural production in fertile areas of Africa, India’s commerce minister, Kamal Nath, said in a telephone interview, repeating the point that Americans waste more food than people in many other countries.

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

The Bush administration has called for a truce. President Bush is a “great friend and admirer” of India, the United States ambassador here, David C. Mulford, said last week. He added that “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.”

Some economists argue that blaming India’s growth is not only unfair, but makes little sense.

Food prices have not been rising continually as developing nations grew, said Ramgopal Agarwala, a former World Bank economist and senior adviser at RIS, a research institute in New Delhi. “They were static until 2006, then in 2007 and 2008 there was a sudden spark,” he said. But India has been growing for the last decade. This is “not last year’s phenomena,” he said.

“I don’t know who advised the president” on his recent comments, Mr. Agarwala added, but his analysis is “subprime.”

Mr. Mehta of the research institute conceded that his remarks on liposuction were meant to be tongue in cheek, but that “politically incorrect” attitudes like President Bush’s and Ms. Rice’s needed to be challenged. Rather than blaming India, Mr. Mehta said, the West should be adjusting to a 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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