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Urgent action on food

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The much-vaunted, ‘High-level Conference on World food Security,” organized by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, concluded in Rome, yesterday (June 5th, 2008). There will no doubt be a noble statement of urgent action to be taken (or ought to be) by governments and the international community to tackle the problem of not just high, and rising food prices, but chronic hunger and starvation as a result.{{more}} Expectations will be high, and needs even higher, but will deliverance come?

In spite of the high profile granted to the Food Summit and the high-powered nature of the participants last, there is already evidence that its outcome is not too pleasing for many, especially in the under-developed nations. In fact one African leader, the President of Senegal, is reported to have voiced dissatisfaction with the Summit, speaking of the international community trying to force solutions and expects on African nations. (Surprise! surprise!).

The picture painted by the data before the Conference is certainly a gloomy one. Food prices worldwide have been rising steeply during 2006 (8 per cent up on 2005) and 2007 (a 24 per cent increase on 2006). They have risen even more sharply during the first three months of 2008, on an average of 53 per cent on the previous year. Leading this escalation has been vegetable oils (97 per cent up), grains (87 per cent), dairy products (58 per cent) and rice (40 per cent). The prices of sugar and meat have also jumped though by not as large a margin. What is frightening is that whereas in the past, food prices have fluctuated, up and down, but for some commodities, this time the trend shows no sign of reversing soon. Worse it is not just the price of some commodities increasing, it is for ALL.

Various analyses have been put forward for this phenomenon, ranging from population growth, increased consumption (India and China are forever getting licks for increasing consumption and helping to lift the living standards of their people), skyrocketing fuel prices, competing use of agricultural crops for biofuels and financial factors such as exchange rates. Most of the analysts and economists have however been hesitant to put a finger on a significant contributory fact.

Not so the international movement of small-and family farmers, the Via Campesina. In a statement issued at the Summit, Via Campesina noted the FAO’s analysis that hunger will add 100 million more victims to the current 800 million by year end. But, says the statement, this is not just due to any sudden natural disaster. It is rather, says the farmer’s movement, “the fruits of decades of the policies of trade liberalization and of vertical integration of production, processing and distribution by corporate agriculture.” It is spot on target, for to analyze the situation with food and not touch on international trade policies and the deliberate neglect of agriculture, food and farmers in favour of markets, agri-business and multinationals, is a meaningless exercise.

These same policies of governments and the international community lie at the heart of the present crisis. So Via Campesina is right when it asserts that, as a result, “governments today have to take full responsibility for the current crisis and take resolute actions to solve it.” Because of these policies, family farmers and fisherfolk, not just the urban poor and beleagured middle class, are suffering too all round the world, unable to cope with the rising costs. It is to agri-business and the distributive trade (mega supermarkets) that governments have surrendered including giving up their sovereign rights to regulate trade to the ‘free-marketers” led by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and manifested in the various free trade pacts now proliferating around the world.

Trade liberation has opened markets and increased food imports. World food imports rose from US$630 billion in 2006 to over US $812 billion in 2007 and the forecast for 2008 is to cross the US $1 trillion mark for the first time. Countries are losing the capacity to feed themselves, food has become, not a necessity or a right, but a commodity to be traded for profit and subject to market speculation by financial gamblers. The result can be seen on one hand by the hundreds of millions of hungry and by the profits of the agri-business multinationals- Monsanto (seed), up by 108 per cent last year. Cargill (the world’s largest food trade), an 86 per cent profit hike, and Mosaic (fertilizer) whose profits escalated by a whopping 1334 per cent.

That is where the problem lies and no pious platitudes from any Conference will solve it. Simply put, agriculture, and FARMERS, must be given utmost priority and focus, and support, at the community, national and global levels. Governments must be forced to come in line, not just by farmers, but by us all, as consumers, as the hungry, the poor and the suffering.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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