Population Matters

A Major Step Forward for the Vatican

November 24th, 2010

After decades of silence and condemnation the Vatican has modified it position on using condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS. The shift, while it stops short of what is needed, represents a significant step forward.

Just last summer, Pope Benedict caused an international uproar when on a trip to Africa he told journalists that condoms should not be used because they could increase the spread of AIDS.  Now, however, he indicates that using condoms is less evil than risking HIV exposure. While the Pope’s comments do not go as far as those fighting HIV/AIDS would like, and the Vatican still forbids the use of condoms for family planning purposes, the remarks still constitute a major departure.

Groups of concerned Catholics, like Catholics for Choice, are to be congratulated for their efforts to persuade the Vatican to alter its position on the use of condoms.  At a time when many thought that the Vatican would never change its position, they persevered.

Jon O’Brien the president of Catholics for Choice issued this statement yesterday talking about the significance of the pope’s comments.

“The Vatican’s acknowledgement that Pope Benedict’s acceptance of condom use to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections relates to everybody shows how significant the pope’s comments are.

“This morning, the Vatican’s spokesperson, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said:

I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine. He told me no. The problem is this … It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship. This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point.

“Conservatives, who immediately raced into action to deny the significance of the pope’s statement – after the text of the interview was published on Saturday – are left clutching at straws. Their attempts to contain condom use to male prostitutes are shown up for what they were – a sham. They have long sought to make the case that church teachings on these issues are unchanging and unchangeable. One can only hope that they will embrace this new position and advocate for condom use whenever necessary.

“Some people have criticized the glacial pace at which the Catholic hierarchy moves. Certainly, this acceptance of condom use is more than two decades too late. But it has now happened, and organizations that have been hesitant to provide condoms to those living with HIV and AIDS must move immediately to put this new teaching into action.

“The first step on any journey is always the hardest, but it is also the most important one because without it change is impossible.”

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

FAO: Another Food Crisis

November 18th, 2010

It’s official.  The world is facing yet another food crisis.  While grain prices have been soaring for months, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has been reluctant to ring the alarm bell.  No longer.  In releasing the latest edition of its Food Outlook report the FAO warned Wednesday that international food import bills could pass the one trillion dollar mark, and that the world should “prepare for harder times ahead unless production of major food crops increases significantly in 2011.”

While some analysts have been blaming the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing for the run-up in food commodity prices, the FAO put the bulk of the blame on poor harvests. In June of this year, the FAO forecasted that world cereal production would rise by 1.2 percent, but the latest report indicates that it will contract by 2.0 percent.  The FAO’s outlook is consistent with another crop forecast issued a few weeks ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Until very recently experts were hoping that ample grain reserves would eventually dampen spiraling grain prices and ward off a repeat of the 2007-8 food crisis.  The FAO’s report, however, predicts that food import bills for the world’s “poorest countries” will rise by 11 percent in 2010, while bills for “low-income food-deficit countries” will go up by 20 percent. 

To date, rising grain prices have not triggered the kind of food riots that were seen three years ago, but if there is another round of crop failures next year, severe shortages, higher prices, and food riots could be right around the corner.  The FAO’s report indicates that world cereals stocks will shrink by seven percent this year with barley plunging 35 percent, maize (corn) 12 percent, and wheat 10 percent. 

There is an old adage in food commodity world:  the cure for high food prices is high prices.  That’s certainly true when the price of one grain commodity spikes.  If wheat prices soar, farmers plant more wheat.  If corn prices rocket, they plant more corn.  But when the prices of wheat, corn, soybeans, and barley all head north, that kind of substitution doesn’t occur.  And with cotton prices up nearly 70 percent since the beginning of the year, it’s unlikely that farmers next year will be planning grain instead of cotton.  Nor is it likely that farmers will stop producing corn for ethanol.

In the short-term the best hope is that we don’t see the kind of drought, flooding and record high temperatures next year that we saw this year, and that a spike in energy prices doesn’t further escalate the costs of fertilizer and fuel.  With world population still growing by more than 80 million a year, and diets in Asia becoming more meat-intensive, the world may be increasingly prone to grain shortages.

Looking longer term, the world needs to boost food production by 70 percent over the next 40 years if we are going to satisfy our growing appetite for food.  Food production in the developing world will have to double just to keep up with projected population growth. And it will have to do so despite soil erosion, loss of arable land to urbanization, rising energy prices, increasing water scarcity, and the increased drought, flooding, and rising temperatures that will accompany global warming.

No matter what happens next year, some will insist that there’s still plenty of food in the world, that it’s just a matter of eliminating food waste in the developed world.  Perhaps, but when the world’s grain reserves draw dangerously low and more grain exporters impose grain embargoes, people will go hungry, particularly the urban poor living on $2 a day or less. Average Americans may not feel a world food crisis, but if the price of bread doubles or triples, its impact will surely be felt in the shantytowns and favelas of the world.

Right-wing conspiracy theorists, like Glenn Beck, will insist that high grain prices are signs of a “hyper-inflation” unleashed by the Obama Administration upon the world.  The sobering reality is that higher food prices reflect a growing imbalance between food supply and food demand.  For a full decade now, the world’s farmers have not been keeping up with the world’s growing appetite for food.

We may yet stave off the immediate food crisis.  We may not be so lucky in the long run.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

This commentary is reposted from the Huffington Post

Senate Must Ratify CEDAW

November 16th, 2010

This Thursday the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law will hold a hearing on the Convention for the Elimination of All Form of Violence against Women (CEDAW). This is the first hearing in eight years on CEDAW, which is an international human rights treaty that focuses exclusively on women’s rights and gender equality. The convention sets a global definition for discrimination against women and outlines a plan to end that discrimination. Those states that ratify the convention are required to take, “all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men.”

CEDAW has the potential to have a significant impact on the daily lives of women. The convention singles out access to family planning and decisions on the number and spacing of children as areas that countries are required to pay attention to. Unfortunately, the language requiring access to family planning has led to resistance in the U.S. Senate, with some critics arguing that CEDAW is pushing a pro-abortion agenda.

Unfortunately, partisan politics has prevented the passing of CEDAW for over 30 years, leaving the United States in unwelcome company among the only seven nations in the U.N. who have refused to ratify CEDAW. The other six countries are Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau, and Tonga.  If the United States wants to be a leader in human rights, particularly women’s rights, it is imperative that the U.S. ratify CEDAW.

The hearing in the Senate is just the beginning. In order for CEDAW to be ratified there must be approved by 2/3rd’s of the Senate. Time, however, is running out, as the incoming Senate will not be as favorably inclined to ratify CEDAW.

As supporters of the ratification of CEDAW, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton need to make it clear that as a matter of basic respect for human rights, the Senate must act now.  We must ratify CEDAW this year!

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager