Empty Promises

The high-level conference at Rome was called to find a way out of the global food crisis. A series of consultations with experts preceded this important event that went to show that the UN had all good intentions. The good intentions unfortunately did not translate into good policy decisions that could slow, stop and reverse the food shortage. savvy soumya misra reports from Rome on an opportunity squandered

Published: Monday 30 June 2008

Empty Promises

Down to Earth As soaring food prices threatened to push 100 million more people into starvation, heads and representatives of 180 countries gathered in Rome in the first week of June to find ways to overcome the crisis. The situation was extraordinary--global food prices have almost doubled in three years and the Food and Agriculture Organization (fao) predicts the trend is not going to ease in the short term because global grain supplies are at their lowest since the 1980s. Inflation has triggered protests across the world. "If we do not urgently take the courageous decisions that are required, the restrictive measures taken by producer countries to meet the needs of their population, the impact of climate change and speculation on futures markets will place the world in a dangerous situation," said fao Director General Jacques Diouf.But the response at the fao Conference on World Food Security was anything but extraordinary. The declaration adopted by a fractious gathering of world leaders failed to live up to the promise held out by the conference. It called for ramping up investment in agriculture, but was vague and non-committal on issues of biofuel, agricultural trade and climate change that required tough decisions.

Although the declaration spoke of halving global hunger by 2015--as per the Millennium Development Goals--it shied away from proposing any radical shift in the world agricultural policies to achieve the goal. Argentina and other Latin American countries refused to adopt the declaration without amendments, saying there was an over-dependence on the International Monetary Fund (imf) and the World Bank, which had been responsible for distorting agricultural policies in developing countries in the first place. Cuba criticized "lack of political will among countries of the North to resolve the crisis".

Clash of interests
One of the main objections of the Latin American countries to the declaration was the absence of any reference to farm subsidies rich countries, especially the us and European nations, give to their farmers. These subsidies depress food prices, making it difficult for farmers of poor countries to compete. This discourages investment in agriculture in developing countries. Argentina's government said in a statement, "Argentina is formally registering its dissatisfaction with a text that, while dealing with the question of food security, doesn't include a single reference that uses the term 'agricultural subsidies'." Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had also called for an "end to intolerable farm subsidies".

While urging rich nations to open markets for agricultural products and eliminate farm subsidies, un Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in his keynote address, also asked countries to lift export restrictions on foodgrains and oils. About 40 food-exporting countries, including India, have imposed trade restrictions on food. But most of these countries are poor and have taken the step to safeguard their domestic food supply. It became a point of contention when the draft declaration called for "the need to minimize the use of restrictive measures that could increase volatility of international prices".

The clearing of the declaration draft was not without an element of drama. Latin American countries, Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, almost stalled the proceedings, demanding that the term "restrictive measures" be removed from the draft. They agreed to give their consent to the draft only after being assured that their objections would be annexed to the declaration, but the the term remained.

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Secretary General, UN
Some countries have taken action by limiting exports or by imposing price controls .... Beggar thy neighbour food policies ... force prices even higher. I call on nations to resist such measures, and to immediately release exports for humanitarian purposes  
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Venezuela accused the conference was dominated by the us. Asia, Africa, us (on behalf of Canada and Mexico) and the eu accepted the proposals; Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini called them disappointing.

The final declaration stresses lifting of trade barriers and "market-distorting policies", saying nothing of farm subsidies that distort the entire economics of food production. Indian agriculture minister Sharad Pawar said trade liberalization must adequately take into account the livelihood and food security concerns of poor farmers in the developing and least developed countries.

"Implementing an aid-for-trade package should complement the Doha Development Agenda (of the wto) to improve the trading capacity of the developing countries," the declaration stated. "Trade negotiations can be part of the medium- and long-term response to the crisis," said Pascal Lamy, wto director general at the plenary session.

Climate change
Climate change is cited as one of the reasons for the shortage in food supply. The signs are all too worrisome. Farmers in Australia, Ukraine, Canada and Syria suffer droughts. American corn and soyabean farmers suffer from heavy rain. But the declaration failed to read the disjointed danger signs and come up with a document to address the challenges before the world. It made only a feeble plea to governments to give "priority to agriculture, forestry and fishery...to create opportunities to enable the world's small-holder farmers and fishers...to participate in, and benefit from financial mechanisms and investment to support climate change adaptation, mitigation and technology development and dissemination".

Shut out
Civil society groups said there was no hope of a concrete outcome. "The only good that the conference will do is bring agriculture into the spotlight. But beyond that it seems to be opening avenues for only big companies, not small farmers," said Flavia Valente, secretary general, FIAN International, Germany.

The participants also questioned the absence of the fao co-sponsored report, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, from the agenda. The report recommends support for small-scale agriculture and attacks biofuel and intellectual property rights.

At the three-day conference, ngos and civil society groups were permitted only a 90-minute forum with an agenda set by the fao. They were not even invited for the private-sector roundtable addressed by former un secretary general Kofi Annan, fao's director general Jacques Diouf and agribusiness representatives like Monsanto and Syngenta.

An fao official said on the condition of anonymity that there were apprehensions of protests by farmer groups and activists and that's why the fao building was cordoned off. The press was kept away from delegates.

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