Global Policy Forum

The World Food Summit: A Lost Opportunity


By Sue Branford*

June 10, 2008

The timing of the United Nations' Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) summit in Rome on 3-5 June 2008 was fortuitous. It had already been scheduled as the latest of the body's regular six-yearly gatherings, but the prominence of food issues on the current global agenda meant that the summit also took on the appearance of an emergency meeting.

No wonder: for desperate hunger has been the trigger for worldwide protests in 2007-08 after rapid increases in the price of essential traded foods, particularly rice. Food insecurity haunts hundreds of millions of people from at least thirty-seven countries - twenty in Africa, nine in Asia, six in Latin America and two in east-central Europe. The plight of people across the globe on the edge of very survival is a test of the way food economies - from owning, seeding, planting, and growing to producing, selling, distributing, and consuming - are currently being run.

The Messy Compromise

The Rome summit - formally the "High-Level Conference on World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy" - was originally intended to be discussing agriculture and global warming, but the agenda was modified to concentrate on the immediate food crisis. At its opening, FAO director-general Jacques Diouf said that he was daring to hope for a positive response to his call for "urgent and coordinated action to combat the negative impacts of soaring food prices on the world's most vulnerable countries and populations". He pointed out that in 2006 the world had spent $1.2 trillion on arms, and asked: "Against that backdrop, how can we explain to people of good sense and good faith that it was not possible to find $30 billion a year to enable 862 million hungry people to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food and thus the right to life?"

This passionate appeal fell on deaf ears. Maybe, as argued by the Overseas Development Institute's Simon Maxwell, the outcome was not as bad as had been feared (see "Rome's food summit: a torch passed", 7 June 2008). True, new pledges on aid were indeed made; though, as Maxwell says, it is difficult to decide what are new commitments rather than old promises decked out in new clothes. It is clear, in any case, that the final figure will fall well short of Diouf's $30 billion target.

Moreover, the final declaration agreed on 5 June contained a jumble of different - and often contradictory - aims. For instance, it spoke of the need to "maintain biodiversity" and to support "the world's smallholder farmers and fishers, including indigenous people, particularly in vulnerable areas"; but this nod towards the environmental agencies and social movements was combined with backing for "efforts to liberalise trade in agriculture by reducing trade barriers"', which ignores the fact that many in the developing world blame the forced opening of markets for the destruction of local livelihoods.

The Biofuel Dispute

A similar incoherence was apparent in the final declaration over what was probably the most contentious issue discussed at the summit - biofuels. The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) had calculated before the conference that the diversion of food crops, mainly maize and sugar, into the production of biofuels was responsible for 30% of the recent rise in food prices (see Mark W Rosegrant, "Biofuels and grain prices: impacts and policy responses", IFPRI, 7 May 2008). Others at the summit expressed the fear that the large-scale cultivation of crops for biofuels could accelerate the destruction of precious ecosystems, causing huge quantities of carbon to be released in the atmosphere.

Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who passionately believes that his country can help to save the world from climate chaos by producing huge quantities of environmentally-friendly ethanol made from sugar, was furious at the suggestion that his biofuel policy could be destroying the Amazon rainforest (see Conor Foley, "Don't blame Brazilian biofuels", Guardian, 6 June 2008). The fact that his argument was weakened by pre-summit figures which showed that forest-felling had returned to record levels did not deter him from launching a full-bodied attack on the multinational oil companies, which he believes are deliberately spreading alarmist rumours to keep Brazil out of the world's energy market. "I see with indignation that many of the fingers pointing at the clean energy of biofuels are soiled with oil and coal", he raged.

In face of such divisions, the summit's concluding declaration could produce only an ambiguous commitment "to foster a coherent, effective and results-oriented international dialogue on biofuels in the context of food security and sustainable development needs."

The Systemic Trend

The summit also had little to say on the role of speculation in creating the food crisis. Yet much of the blame for the remarkable increase in food prices over the last year can be attributed to speculators who, anxious for a quick return, have been taking a vast amount of money out of equities and mortgage bonds and ploughing it into the commodity markets (see Paul Waldie, "Food speculation spurs U.S. trading crackdown", Toronto Globe & Mail, 4 June 2008). By February-March 2008 the influx had reached about $1 billion a day. One leading commodities broker estimates that the amount of speculative money in commodities futures rose from $5 billion in 2000 to $175 billion in 2007.

It is a bubble that is bound to burst, but in the meantime it is leading to a 40% increase in developing countries' food bills. For the poor in countries such as Haiti, Eritrea, Burkina Faso and Burundi, which are heavily dependent on imported food, this is having a catastrophic impact (see Amélie Gauthier, "Haiti: empty stomachs, stormy politics", 21 April 2008). For multinational food traders, on the other hand, it is a chance to clock up extraordinary profits: those of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the second largest grain trader in the world, rose by 65% to a record $2.2 billion in 2007 (see Grain, "Making a killing from hunger", April 2008).

The FAO summit made no attempt to address the problems underlying the food crisis. The recent unstable rise in food prices has come after a long period of rock-bottom prices for commodities, which began with a catastrophic price slump in the 1980s, itself a product of global over-production encouraged by International Monetary Fund policies.

A recent study, one of whose co-authors is a former under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs at the United Nations, is illuminating here (see José Antonio Ocampo & Maria í‚ngela Parra, "This is a Boom of Mineral, not Agricultural Prices, RGE Latin America EconoMonitor, 6 May 2008). It shows that, taking as a basis the average price paid for commodities in the period before the crisis (1945-1980), some products are still being sold very cheaply: sugar (down from an indicator of 100.0 to 41.0), cotton (43.5), coffee (58.0), tea (58.7) and cacao (60.9). Only one crop - wheat (189.7) - is fetching a much higher price, while maize (95.7) and rice (78.0) have almost recovered their earlier price levels. What the world is experiencing is not just a temporary price bubble but the long-term consequences of incoherent and unfair global food policies.

The Biotech Option

While nothing suggests that action will be taken to make trade fairer, some initiatives funded by private foundations are going ahead. The biggest and best-funded of these is a drive to provide small-scale African farmers with new, high-yielding seeds and the fertilisers, irrigation and infrastructure they need to go with them. This is, in essence, what the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), formed jointly in a fanfare of publicity by the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Rockefeller Foundations in September 2006, plans to do. On the sidelines of the Rome summit, Agra signed an agreement with FAO and several other agencies.

The global biotechnology industry is firmly backing this initiative, which will open new markets for them. Globally, the top ten seed corporations already control over half of commercial seed sales (see Hope Shand, "Seed giants see gold in climate change", Asia Times, 15 May 2008). They are currently acquiring hundreds of patents on crop genes and intend to develop genetically-modified crops designed to deal with the kind of harsh climatic conditions frequently encountered in Africa. In March 2007, Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, signed a $1.5 billion agreement with BASF, the world's largest chemical company, to engineer stress-tolerant plants. The George W Bush administration is supportive, as seen in the way it slipped into a $770 million food-aid package a clause to allow part of the money to be used to develop genetically-modified organisms (see Stephen Hedges, "U.S. using food crisis to boost bio-engineered crops", Chicago Tribune, 14 May 2008).

The Model in Question

In reality, there is little reason to believe that this type of development will do much to resolve the underlying problems of hunger in the world. Indeed, the current crisis is largely the result of the failure of these kinds of policy. Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers, for instance, gave up subsistence agriculture to purchase on credit, from middlemen, genetically modified (Bt) cotton, along with all the associated chemical fertilisers and pesticides. They were promised higher incomes, which some achieved in the first years. But then came crop-failure, caused by poor weather, and many farmers got trapped in ever-escalating debts. Some 150,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves as a result and the suicides are still going on.

Many policy-makers, including those drawing up the latest report from the inter-governmental International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), believe that hunger will end only with a move away from chemically-dependent agriculture to more agro-ecological, non-proprietary practices.

The leading voices calling for this kind of development last week in Rome came from peasant organisations, including Via Campesina, who were taking part in an alternative conference called the Forum Terra Preta. Its statement rejected "the corporate industrial and energy-intensive model of production and consumption that is the basis of continuing crises" (see "Terra Preta: Forum on the Food Crisis, Climate Change, Agrofuels and Food Sovereignty" [Rome, 1-4 June 2008]). In its place, the forum called for support for local farming systems, based on indigenous knowledge, focused on maintaining healthy, fertile soil, and organised around a broad use of locally available biodiversity. The lines for the coming battle over the future of world farming have been clearly drawn.

About the Author: Sue Branford is co-editor of Seeding and manages the publications of the agricultural-diversity NGO, Grain. She reports regularly from Latin America for the BBC and the Guardian. She is co-author (with Jan Rocha), of Cutting the Wire: the Story of the Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement (Latin America Bureau, 2002) and (with Hugh O'Shaughnessy) of Chemical Warfare in Colombia: The Costs of Fumigation (Latin America Bureau, 2005)
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