Mail Call: A Global Problem

Readers of our May 19 coverage of the world food shortage expressed concern. One wrote, "we can't afford uncontrolled population growth." Another said, "rich countries must lift barriers to farm imports." A third, linking oil prices to food scarcity, advised "economic sanctions for OPEC countries."

A Universal Crisis in Agriculture
The world has enjoyed relatively cheap food for decades, thanks to the continuously lavish subsidies by the United States and the successful green revolution of the 1970s. But lately, global food prices have been escalating sky-high, and triggering panic among the impoverished, resulting in protest after protest in developing countries ("The Biggest Crisis of All," May 19). Luckily most governments have been quick to come to the rescue by banning illegal hoarding and distributing cheap food to the neediest. However, these are temporary measures; we have to look at the root of the problem of the imminent food shortage for a long-term solution. At 6.5 billion people now, the world is already witnessing at least 1 billion struggling with hunger every day. Some experts believe that the earth can support up to 10 billion people some time around 2050. If so, this may be at the expense of 3 billion to 4 billion inhabitants in perpetual semi-hunger. Deserts are expanding, cultivable lands appear to be shrinking, more so when part of them have been converted quickly to obtain biofuels. More people means a greater demand for food, thus aggravating the price-increase crisis. It also means more energy will be required to sustain a reasonable standard of living, which could imply faster global warming—and so, the vicious cycle goes on. Whether we like it or not, the world cannot afford uncontrolled population growth. We ignore this problem at our own peril.
Titan Monn
Bangkok, Thailand

After reading the "solutions" proposed by the eight leaders in "How to Feed the World," I find it no wonder there's a world food problem. None of them proposes the obvious common-sense, time-tested solution: pressuring ruling elites of poor countries to abandon their feudal thinking about their own people so that ability plays a role in economic success instead of having to belong to ruling families, castes or tribes. They must also be pushed to put in place social and economic rules that stimulate the freedom and initiative of private farmers. We should send expert farmers with hands-on experience on how to choose, plant, irrigate, grow and harvest crops as well as how to run a farm business. Finally, rich countries need to be shamed into lifting barriers to farm imports from poor countries because those barriers are a perverse way of turning plowshares into bullets.
Victor Ben Abraham
Seville, Spain

Your articles on global food crisis and the views of experts on its causes and remedies are enlightening. There is a convergence of views on the need to abolish farm subsidies by developed countries, stop the diversion of corn for producing ethanol by America and the EU, intensify agricultural research on high-yielding varieties of grains and develop necessary agro-related infrastructure. But what seems to have escaped the due notice of some experts is the contribution of oil prices to creating food scarcity, which has led to spiraling increase in the price of food grains across the world. Increased oil prices hovering in the range of $120 to $125 per barrel have led to an increase in the prices of naphtha-based nitrogenous fertilizers, pesticides, packaging material and transport. There is an urgent need for a study in order to know precisely the share of oil in the market price of, say, wheat and rice. It must be remembered that diversion of irrigable land to growing corn for producing ethanol is also due to an increase in oil prices, which, too, needs to be factored into the study. In this connection, two statistics quoted by Michael Pollan in "How to Feed the World" are an eye-opener. He says it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy, while it takes 10 pounds of grain to feed cattle to produce one pound of beef. Chickens are also grain guzzlers. For that reason, PETA (India) recently advised President Bush to turn vegetarian! The situation is serious enough for the United Nations to intervene on a war footing. Let the U.N. Economic and Social Council conduct such a study in association with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research under Article 62 of the U.N. Charter restricting its terms of reference to the impact of oil prices on the price of food grains. It may persuade OPEC to reduce them to a reasonable level in line with the cost of drilling plus a fair margin of profit. If these countries refuse to agree, the Council may, with the approval of the General Assembly, recommend to the Security Council under Article 65 of the U.N. Charter to threaten the OPEC countries with economic sanctions. The United Nations would be failing in its duty if it does not intervene to force a reasonable reduction in oil prices and lets the OPEC cartel sap the wealth of developing countries, driving their nationals to starvation and death.
Sharad C. Misra
Mumbai, India

China ' s Naval Threat
I found Daniel Blumenthal's point of view concerning the current Chinese military development really old-fashioned ("An Underwater Threat," May 19). On reading his article, you'd think we are still in the cold-war era in which the United States would consider itself the only global cop which, because of its democratic credentials, could define the military involvement of any country around the world. Besides the fact that Iraq has proved the limited capabilities of the mighty U.S. Army to act as Blumenthal suggests, are we in a time in history in which China or any other country, deeply involved and dependent on international commerce, could reasonably represent a military threat to its commercial partners? Isn't this idea of a mutually assured commerce, at this time, far more compelling for any nation than the old "mutually assured destruction" concept as the best ally for international peace? His comments regarding a dangerous buildup of nondetectable submarine bases on the Chinese coast reminded me of a James Bond movie. Blumenthal's final statement asking the U.S. government to take action against China is the real threat to global peace, since the world could not afford another cold war based on such dangerous and biased arguments.
Gerardo San Martin
Mexico City, Mexico

What ' s the EU President ' s Role?
Denis Macshane's essay on the forthcoming election of a European Union president was timely and, on the whole, accurate ("The Hunt for Mr. Europe," May 19). However, it must be said that the basic concept of electing an EU president is highly controversial—and for good reason. It is difficult to imagine how an EU president can effectively exercise his responsibilities on behalf of 27 (plus) member states which have their competing visions of the world. Few want the realization of the federal dream of a United States of Europe. Most are in favor of Europe as a confederation of sovereign nations. The Lisbon Treaty is ambiguous enough and risks rendering the EU even more dysfunctional than it is already. An EU president, whoever he or she may be, will hardly help matters.
Karl H. Pagac
Villeneuve-Loubet, France

Evaluating Pope Benedict
The author of "Why This Pope Doesn't Connect" (April 21/April 28) states that Benedict pales in comparison with his predecessor in a number of respects including "looks, vitality, charisma, showmanship, tenure and popular appeal." Is she referring to the head of the Roman Catholic Church or the lead in a high-school rock band? Surely these specific characteristics are of scant importance in a person leading the largest Christian denomination on the planet. She goes on to state that certain other elements make him unsuitable or unpopular as an ideal pope, including his unfortunate visage, his predilection for traditional papal fashion and the fact that he served as John Paul's theological "enforcer." Again, one can only wonder why anyone would deem these features important in determining Benedict's acceptance among Roman Catholic Christians. Surely his religious devotion, intelligence and peculiar application of church dogma would be of far greater interest. The article further opines that the Roman Church operates in a "chaotic world" and then ends by saying that American Catholics understand that they will not be satisfied in their desire for the church to change. It does leave one wondering whether the world would not be less chaotic if it was less American and more in line with church teaching.
Johan Marnewick
Johannesburg, South Africa

George Weigel's "How Benedict XVI Will Make History" (April 21/April 28) may well become a historic piece of journalism. I'm not Roman Catholic, don't understand many of the church's traditions nor condone the transgressions of sinful priests. However, the pope does retain great moral authority. Pope Benedict's predecessor played a huge role in the fall of communism. Benedict, as Weigel notes, "is thinking in centuries here." This pope is using all the moral authority at his disposal to reach across lines of historic division and show that Muslims can and should be welcome in a world of peaceful coexistence where freedom of faith becomes the cornerstone in a world of lasting peace.
Dale Ledbetter
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

What Lisa Miller misses in her article "Why This Pope Doesn't Connect" is a common misperception about Roman Catholicism—that our pope is supposed to represent us. How could a billion believers with different cultures, languages and perspectives have as their head someone who "connects" with all? Rather, we trust that God gives us the pope we need for the times. The pope is meant to be more of an instrument of God to challenge and inspire, instead of a leader in the sense Americans know. Perhaps Benedict's de-emphasis of "feelings" in his persona or message is actually a positive point to be pondered.
Brittany Doucette
Indianapolis, Indiana

Not the Burj Dubai
The building in the lead photograph accompanying our April 21/April 28 article "Beyond the Glitz" was misidentified. It is not the Burj Dubai, the tallest building the world, but the Burj Al Arab, a luxury hotel in Dubai. NEWSWEEK REGRETS the error.

Mercury in Childhood Vaccines
In "Mysteries and Complications" (March 24), we said that the MMR vaccine once contained thimerosal. It did not. Other childhood vaccines, however, did contain the mercury-based preservative. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.