The United Nations summit to discuss the global food crisis in Rome last week survived narrowly from passing as a failure.
Leaders and delegates from 181 countries assembled on Tuesday to thrash out the causes and possible solutions to the sharp increase in food prices coupled with the shortage of food supply, yet most analysts will confidently say that no new information came out of the summit.
The meeting which had been initially called to address “the challenges of climate change and bio-energy” was overtaken by events, to the extent that climate change suffered the humiliation of not featuring at all in the talks.
As much as various political heads struggled to stick to the issue of solving the food crisis, the majority ended up in a blame game with their political rivals over other issues other than food, instead of pointing out the real issues affecting the poorest of the poor.
The hottest debate surrounded the negative impact of bio-fuels of food crisis, its proponents, its producers, forging an otherwise unlikely partnership between the United States and Brazil, while its vehement opponents consisting largely of the third world countries who had a bone to pick with the big countries on many issues including unfair trade terms and agricultural subsidized by the western countries.
In a way, it was clear that in the final document the fierce debate around a policy statement on bio-fuels and trade which are solely responsible for watering down the importance of the summit were a clear indication of the side that walked away victorious. The summit declaration was coy on the subject of bio-fuels.
“We are convinced that in-depth studies are necessary to ensure that production and use of bio-fuels is sustainable.”
Ed Schafer, the American agriculture secretary said that increasing the production of corn ethanol is “the right policy direction”, no wonder Corn prices rose on the world markets throughout the last hours of the summit.
The upside could be the generous way in which countries pledged almost 3 US$ billion of emergency aid to provide food for populations that could not feed themselves, which in itself is a stop gap, a role the western world revels in, well knowing that it is no long time solution to the poverty in the third world.
Above all the political brouhaha of Robert Mugabe visits and vitriolic outburst against his old nemesis, Britain, the strongest message of hope from Africa perhaps, came from the ADB president, Donald Kaberuka.
He emphasized that while the immediate response was to provide emergency support and food to vulnerable people and countries most at risk, measures to deal with macro-economic stress and the longer term challenge of enhancing agricultural productivity and food security, especially in Africa, should be the long term strategy.
He referred to a “Smallholder Agricultural Revolution in Africa”, as the continent’s best option for tackling the escalating global food crisis, and went ahead to commit US$ 250 million of ADB Group’s agricultural portfolio to help accelerate agricultural production in the short term by facilitating the purchase of fertilizers and inputs.
By making this commitment, he rose above the politics of the day to suggest a solution and a plan for implementation to the current crisis. Also, the summit declaration stated” We firmly resolve to use all means to alleviate the suffering caused by the current crisis, to stimulate food production and to increase investment in agriculture, to address obstacles to food access and to use the planet’s resources,” which echoed the ADB group’s stand.
They were mixed feelings about the impact of the summit on food production. Barbara Stocking, Director of Oxfam UK cautioned that “it would be a mistake to dismiss this summit as a waste of time” referring $4 billion in pledges made to support agriculture in developing countries.
However it was clear that the last debate session on the draft resolution was full politicking and avoided the real problems at hand. Manfred Bötsch, director of the Swiss Federal Agriculture Office and a conference delegate said the meet had also failed to concretely address issues of small-scale agriculture in developing countries, which were hit hardest by the food crisis.
The UN Chief, Ban Ki-moon had earlier told the delegates that import taxes and export restrictions must also be minimized to alleviate hunger, and the declaration called for “reducing trade barriers and market-distorting policies”. As a result of the discussions on fair trade, the Doha Round of talks will have a strong referral point in favour of third world countries during the next round.
The Cubans maintained their regular ritual of lambasting America for its “criminal embargo” on Cuba and wondered why “speculators and monopolies” that were the real reason behind the hiking food prices with “the sinister strategy of using grain for fuel” were not mentioned.
Mr. Douglas Alexander, Britain’s International Development Minister, was more in the same page as the ADB president when he said that “a more effective functioning agricultural market” and in the long term, a significant rise in agricultural growth and productivity was the solution to the food crisis.