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Exclusive Q&A interview with Sir Bob Geldof

By:Sean Evers
Exclusive Q&A interview with Sir Bob Geldof on a wide range of issues revolving around Africa, hunger, China, Agriculture, geo-politics and Food Security with moderator Sean Evers, Managing Partner of Gulf Intelligence.

Q: In the last three years we have see two major spikes in food prices - are we now entering a period of perpetual food crisis?

A: I think it has gone beyond a food shock, which is what we had in 2008, and now we have moved into a food crisis. I have worked with Kofi Annan on the Africa Progress Panel, and as you know Kofi is a very serious man. He is desperate, that is the word I have to use, he is desperate! I see him a lot and the conversation always swings around to the pending Food Crisis, and it affects us all in several ways. In the UK, in Europe and America the challenge of food inflation is going to set back the economic recovery hugely and that is dangerous for the world, and that is compounded by the fact that neither America nor Europe are dealing with the fundamental problems of the economy, they are skating over it and I believe there will be another economic crisis married to a food crisis in the west. It is not good news.

Q: Remedies? We talk a lot about this as a crisis of the future, but is this a crisis now that needs immediate attention and tangible remedies?

A: I do not think we will find a remedy for now. The quick fix does not happen. We do not have a choice in anything anymore. I mean, you know, the nation state seeks to remedy things at exactly the point where it is no longer capable of doing that. Several issues must be dealt with on a global basis not least the economy. The economies of the world cannot fix themselves without the cooperation of this region on the oil price, which in turn is a commodity which is bundled in an index. So, if the oil price stays at a $100, then a whole bundle of commodities rises along with it in the futures market. We can produce food, we cannot produce water! Seventy percent of world water is taken up in agriculture and if we now need to expand the agriculture then we have to use more water. Water, I think the Yangtze River is down 40%, the Orange in South Africa is down 40%, the Murray was down 40%. You are looking at the climate change -- This is all critical.

Q: The G8 made a pledge to tackle food security in the L'Aquila Joint Statement in Italy in July 2009 -- The world leaders agreed “to act with the scale and urgency needed to achieve sustainable global food security” -- Do you see that commitment, that urgency?

A: No, they committed $22.5 billion and so far only $6 billion has been delivered. A lot of that money has come out of existing aid funds, so, you know if they take from Peter, they give to Paul, sort of thing. So if you are losing on education, if you are losing on health, it is going to agriculture, so there is very little, relatively little new money.

Q: What is the function of that money in tackling a challenge of this scale -- If you get $20 billion, if you get $50 billion, what can that money do to remedy or to start to remedy, the scale of this looming crisis?

A: It is across the board on all the things that need to be done - it is financial, it is infrastructural, it is new more efficient ways of agriculture, it is science, it is all of those things. Frankly $22 billion is not going to get you very far in this world, but it is a start and it was a commitment. Unless you stay on top of the G8, unless you stay on their case, it will remain forever a commitment and nothing else. I was very involved in Tony Blair’s G8 in 2005, and just before he left office I asked him to set up a panel to monitor the G8 commitments in 2005 and we have been able to do that, sort of hold their feet to the fire a bit and they have delivered on third world debts and they have delivered about 60% of the aid pledged.
I know Bob Zoellick, the head of the World Bank, is scared stiff of the agricultural problem. I personally think it is absolutely the single greatest problem the world faces and millions are going to die, they will, they absolutely will --
are you content to allow that to happen?

Q: We already have in America up to 50 million Americans on food stamps -- When this crisis reaches its zenith will you have food issues all over the world?

A: I was in Texas about a month ago and what is happening there is just unbelievable! One-fifth of the entire population of the healthiest and wealthiest nation ever seen in the history of our world is on Food Stamps. This is a system that has gone properly wrong and whatever global systems we have been operating with, including the economic one, it is just not working properly.
Can you fundamentally restructure that without pain? No. Do we have to alter the way we think? Absolutely! Will some of us always live better than others? Yes. But given all of that it is critically against our interest that lots of people go hungry, that they remain poor, that, they are not capable of implementing their own agriculture procedures, which will benefit them and us in turn, that must be dealt

Q: We have seen the Chinese implement a one child policy for many years, which is at its core a food security policy – is the idea of restricting population or managing population growth as a tool of food security a legitimate consideration to be explored?

A: I do not think it works. For example, you see now a complete easing off of the one child policy because suddenly the exigencies of the economy in China seem to be more important, so they need a bigger population at this point and so they are, especially the rising middle class; they are just saying, forget it, we are not going to go with the one child thing, we are going to have as many children as we want. As a result of the rising population of the middle class in China, you are also seeing them sucking in more protein. For example, two-thirds of all dairy in the world is imported by China everyday, two-thirds of the entire dairy produced in the planet, and this is after the historical achievement of pulling 400 million people out of extreme poverty.
So the upside is of course is they are out of poverty, the down side is then that they demand a better standard of living. Absolutely deserved! But overpopulation needs to be unembarrassedly and unashamedly addressed. There is overtones of Eugenics. There is overtone’s of Nazism. I think we have to sweep that aside and say this is a problem, I mean you can quote Malthus and Dickens who were warning about this issue centuries ago. President Kennedy’s agricultural adviser said “you cannot have infinity in a finite planet,” which makes sustainable development an oxymoron.
When you have David Attenborough, one of the world’s most renowned naturalist writing in a May edition of the New Statesman, a highly prestigious political newspaper, saying somebody has to start talking about overpopulation – then the world should listen and start talking.
The remedy to overpopulation is clear, it is not through diktat by an overweening government, it is the education of women. When women are educated, it is quite clear they choose to have fewer children. So for example, in India the typical population is 2.5 children per family, yet in Kerala, which educates its women, women choose to have on average about 1.6 children. In the Philippines, which is Catholic, and with the Catholic Church’s view on birth control, the average is 3.3 children per woman which is a form of pension for poor rural people.

Q: In terms of the different food security strategies currently being implemented -- some like China and Saudi Arabia are going in to Africa buying large tracts of land and others like the UAE are investing in companies that operate in the food production business -- which direction do you think is the most appropriate?

A: I think that they are all appropriate and it depends on the appropriate way in which you do it. The land grab is fraught with political difficulties and it meets a lot of resistance, especially in the NGO community. The World Bank has a pact that you can sign up to. I believe that the first thing we need to do is to have something like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which is basically “publish what you pay” that has become normal in New York for now you must publish what you pay national governments for extracting their commodities.
Your accounts must be open. You must say what you are giving to governments and what you are getting in return. Contracts must be open and transparent. The same will be true in London, they cannot do it unilaterally, but they will do it through the EU and already in Hong Kong there are some regulations.
I believe the same should be true of agriculture.
Plus you must respect land rights because otherwise you will have a major political problem. We have seen this in the past; we saw it in 19th century Scotland; we saw it famously in the Wild West when they sought the barbed wire to ring fence so called empty land - all the Hollywood movies are about that. It will happen again. Even if you think that it is non-arable land and that there is nobody living there, there will still be nomadic rights that are ancient. They need to be respected, they need to be negotiated with, and land rights must be formalized.
De Soto, the great Peruvian economist, has said that two-thirds of the world’s capital is tied up in anonymous land rights and if they were freed up and given to their owners or given to their communities, then they could be negotiated and used as capital. Maybe this sort of land investment born out of Food Security necessity is the beginning of that, but it should be done with the utmost respect of the people who ultimately own that land. In that way you get political stability and you get surety of food supply.

Q: Africa is clearly a major part of the global food shortage solution?

A: Africa is critical. Whether anyone believes it or not, I am telling you this that we all have to be in Africa -- 60% of the available arable land in the planet is still in Africa. It can be farmed, it needs modern techniques, it needs modern irrigation and it can be farmed. Is it enough? No.
We will need to increase agriculture production by 70% over the coming years. How? Efficiencies, scientific advancement, proper farming methodology, land rights, all these things can and will be done because if they are not done properly you will have massive political tensions in the countries where it is taking place. Therefore, why invest in those places - capital will only go where it is safe.
Look at what happened when Korea went in to Madagascar. The Financial Times called it colonialism - within three months you had a revolution and there is now a DJ as president, a very good DJ, always elect a rock 'n' roller to be president is my view; but you know that is what happened and that can repeat itself. So the bottom line is that it is a lousy investment unless you are totally transparent, totally honorable, totally respectful, and you give benefit to the people who own the land and the country in which the land resides.

Q: You have talked about getting the best out of Africa, and that the West is absent from Africa and the Chinese are dominant there – is that the right balance for success.

A: Well it’s an A-symmetric world. When you have tiny little states like here in the Gulf being able to influence the entire world economic system with its control on oil supplies -- that is asymmetric. When you have the Chinese economy breaking down because the Congo or Angola refuses suddenly to supply them with the raw materials they need and as a result America collapses -- that is Asymmetric. When you have a man with some gelignite strapped to his chest defeating armies -- that is Asymmetric. The world cannot work with Asymmetry as it is inherent to instability. We must have symmetry in the world systems. We are so wired that decisions on the economy are made on a second by second basis everywhere. The Web has wrought a completely new world. It has changed our economy forever and fundamentally. It has changed our politics forever and fundamentally. It has empowered people who hither to were disempowered, look at North Africa. All of this is happening. So that connectivity is the way we live now. So now we can only deal with these things on a multilateral basis precisely at the time, that the nation state loses its power to influence its own destiny.

Q: Should developing nations be allowed to reach their full aspiration if it entails consuming the world to extinction. China’s aspiration is a very, very large one, just by the scale of numbers -- What responsibility does China have in an Asymmetric world to a global solution?

While America remains the essential nation, China is the power of the 21st century. No question! China’s influence in Africa is overwhelming. It says it has no political ambitions there. That is naïve and disingenuous and by virtue of their investments, they have huge influence there. It is not so great in places like Zimbabwe, but Zimbabwe is to Africa, what North Korea is to Asia, it is an anomaly.
But having said that, when I first went to Africa there were three democracies, there are now 23 at least and there are 19 elections this year - it is stabilizing and it is growing. Last year Africa had more discretionary spending income than Russia or India - 52 cities of a million people, which is the same as Europe and more than India. Within 10 years they will have the greatest work force available on the planet. Europe is growing old, its demography is intolerable. Africa is a continent of children, half of them are 16, half of a continent are 16-year-olds. We are going to need them in Europe. Africa is 8 miles from Europe, so as we were before, in the future our destinies will be inter linked.
China is, I think a good force in Africa. I know that sounds odd as many people are dismayed by their behavior. They are quite a racist people, but 85,000 Chinese emigrated to Africa permanently last year because they found the living conditions there better than from where they came. They are highly entrepreneurial. They do not annoy their neighbors except when they move all their workers in, all with Chinese materials and give no benefit to the indigenous population.

Q: Isn’t that a pretty big thing?

A: Yes, It is a big thing, but the Chinese are not saying to anyone you can’t come as well. I traveled through Africa with George Bush, and Bush was the president who did more for Africa than any other president, including the current one and including Bill Clinton. He was not aware of how big the Chinese investment was and when it was pointed out to him he asked “what is our response, what are we doing, where are all our capitalists, where are our private guys and frankly they are nowhere!
The West does not meet anywhere near what the Chinese or indeed the Indian invest into Africa, and that is probably the new world of south-south relationships and that is probably just fine as far as they are concerned.
The truth is that by 2040 and 2050 Africa will be one of the great polar centers of economic activity in the world.

Q: You are optimistic about Africa?

A: I am totally optimistic about Africa, but what I am not optimistic about is our relationship with this massive continent or indeed with our relationship with Africa. I am not optimistic about it at all. In the past, it was not great, you know, and in the future, like with land grabs, with land investment, with Islamic Wahhabism you know being very aggressive in sub-Saharan Africa, and fundamentalist Christianity pushing up from the south, it is not great.
I am very optimistic about that place, because it has got nowhere else to go and we really need Africa. We need it for its arable lands, its great rivers, it is the mother load of all commodities for the planet and if we do not keep the whole thing going in all its mad Asymmetry then what happens, so we need it.
There are things we can begin to do immediately - Europe should immediately get rid of the Common Agricultural Policy. To Britain’s credit since Margaret Thatcher; and consistently through all the other prime ministers, they have been stripping away subsidy to the agricultural sector. Now, to Europe’s credit it practically allows in all African agriculture products tariff free into Europe. The American Farm Bill is nonsense. They are spending billions subsidizing biofuels, which should be spent on food. Biofuels in America is a complete farce. 
Last Update: 15/08/2011

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