Looking Forward: APEC After Vladivostok

By some estimates, over a billion individuals across the globe face undernutrition while many more live with erratic access to clean water and unreliable electricity. Imagine being hungry at seven years old or walking six kilometers every day to stay hydrated in Africa. As nations prepare to gather for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok, Russia in September 2012, food and energy are two areas where the international community can make quantifiable steps toward better cooperation and sustainability.

Food and Hunger

When the world’s largest exporter of wheat, corn, and soybeans faces its worst drought in 50 years, the world shudders, grocery prices sky-rocket, and experts start warning of a “food crisis” that will hit the poorest and most fragile communities the hardest. In the United States alone, one in five children is hungry. By no means limited to the rural areas, childhood hunger is acutely evident in various elementary schools in Northern Virginia where spring and summer breaks—times when families must feed their little ones—are dreaded. Although recent federal agricultural aid by President Barack Obama will likely ease the economic pressure, the relief stops short of being an international solution. Indeed, world food prices increased 6 percent in July with a 23 percent rise in corn prices, according to the United Nations.

Russia is also experiencing a drought, but will propose to address food insecurity through a program called “organic integration” at APEC. Specifically, “Improving Access to World Markets for Russian Grain Export” will create a “Far East Grain Corridor” and focus on the more efficient delivery of Russian grain to Asia-Pacific nations. To do this, Russia will push for looser restrictions on the flow of goods, as well as the liberalization of services and investments according to Ziyavudin Magomedov, Chairman of the APEC Business Advisory Council. Meanwhile, food quality standards will remain high and economies will be closer and more open through a public-private Policy Partnership on Food Security (PPFS). Building on the momentum of recent G20 meetings, Russia also hopes to recommend better financial access for small-and medium-scale enterprises, like the micro-financing evident in the developing world.

While the Russian proposal will have many fiscal components—like lowering the cost of trade, ensuring the necessary quantities of the good, and making its products affordable—its success may hinge on something far more cultural and innate. As the Japanese proverb states, “A meal is no meal without rice.” Russia, or indeed any nation following this plan, must convince Asia-Pacific nations that grain can substitute rice or it will find itself without the willing buyer. If the switch is made, grain or wheat would then account for 200 to 500 pounds per capita per year in Asian populations. To put this in perspective, Americans consume just over ten pounds of rice per capita per year. This is not a market without its rewards, even if the benevolent goal is to increase food stability and ebb hunger.

Energy Security

In July, approximately ten percent of the world’s population was left in the dark as India experienced the largest electrical blackout ever. Over 650 million people, or twice the population of the United States, were without power. Though this was clearly an epic energy failure, the power outage highlights the delicate balance that rapidly advancing nations face as population demand outpaces capacity. And then the circuit breakers are not thrown.

As nations seek energy solutions and security that does not rely on coal and other environmentally hazardous materials, APEC will be the perfect moment to focus on green technology and build on past agreements. In November 2011, APEC members agreed to scale back tariffs on environmentally friendly goods down to five percent or less over the next four years. The real challenge will be agreeing on which products are covered in this deal as nations better understand the economic potential that something other than oil has.

With hundreds of billions at stake each year, it should come as no surprise then that nations want a level playing field with solar and wind energy products. China and the United States have already had some small tiffs over preliminary duties on Chinese products and allegations of American subsidies to undercut the Asian market for energy materials like polysilicon. In the end, the goal of APEC discussions should be concrete ways that new developments in wind and solar technologies, among other kinds, enable nations to lessen their dependence on foreign energy supplies. The world’s leading economies should also take a page from the playbooks of other nations. Mali uses poisonous black seeds from the jatropha plant, which is little more than a worthless weed, to make biofuel.

Looking to APEC

Discussing food and energy security solutions is as much a part of the American campaign trail as it is an international summit, but it will take serious and long-term commitments by many nations to keep the bellies of babies full and better their future by moving away from toxic pollutants that power industry. Nations gathered in Russia need to avoid the pitfalls of prioritizing energy over the environment or poverty. In particular, APEC must do a better job at understanding how these critical issues are related in rewarding but also dangerous ways. Billions of people are waiting.

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