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UN food summit falls short on ways to combat hunger

6 June 2008

ROME – Delegates representing some 181 nations at a food summit in Rome on Thursday issued a declaration on fighting world hunger, which has been exacerbated by the highest food prices in 30 years, but failed to agree on a set of concrete proposals.

The declaration reaffirmed a 1996 pledge by world leaders to halve the number of hungry people by 2015. Current estimates put the number of hungry at more than 862 million.

However, with participants divided over the causes of the soaring food costs and what role biofuels play in food prices, the declaration stopped short of setting firm, long-term measures to deal with the crisis.

Wrangling over the document – in particular objections over its wording by Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba – delayed its adoption until late in the evening, many hours later than expected.

Disagreements also remained over trade barriers, such as import tariffs and other taxes, and food export restrictions, with some countries opposing the easing or lifting of such measures.

Instead, the declaration committed its signatories to two, immediate and short-term lines of action: to respond urgently to requests for assistance from hunger-threatened countries and to lend immediate support for agricultural production and trade.

The summit host, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had listed 22 countries that are particularly vulnerable due to a combination of high levels of chronic hunger – defined as more than 30 per cent undernourishment – and being net importers of both food and fuel.

Countries such as Eritrea, Niger, Comoros, Haiti and Liberia are particularly affected.

To help such food-importing, low-income countries cope with the high food prices, the declaration specified donors and international financial institutions should "provide in a timely manner, balance of payment support."

Seeds, fertilizers, animal feed and technical assistance should also be made available to farmers in poor countries, it said.

The declaration, stated that such products should be "locally adapted," but it made no reference to the controversial use of genetically modified products.

The United States, the leading proponent and producer of genetically modified (GM) foods is at odds with others such as the European Union which opposes or restricts their use.

Supporters of GM seeds and other products say they make plants resistant to diseases and pests, while opponents say the high costs of the technology make farmers, especially those in poor countries, dependent on a few large GM product manufacturing corporations.

This "unprecedented response" indicates a "realisation that hunger is on the march and this is unacceptable," Josette Sheeran, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said.

"A child dies of hunger every six seconds," Sheeran said, explaining that people in developing nations have been hit hardest by the hike in food prices, which have recorded a 10-per-cent increase each month since June 2007.

Sheeran said once petroleum prices rise above the 80-dollar-a- barrel mark, it becomes cost-effective for people to revert to biofuels, which produce ethanol from foodstuffs.

In Ghana, for example, the food crop cassava is being increasingly used for biofuel to counter the surges in diesel and fertilizer prices, Sheeran said.

Still, the issue of biofuels and the role they play in pushing up prices and diminishing food supplies remained unresolved, with top producers Brazil and the United States staunchly defending their production of ethanol as an alternative fuel.

In its reference to biofuels the declaration appeared to adopt a neutral stance, saying that that "in-depth studies are necessary to ensure that production and use of biofuels is sustainable" and the "desirability of exchanging experiences on biofuels technologies norms and regulations."

Another contentious issue, the role of tariffs and other trade barriers – which are seen to spur price increases while also limiting availability of food on the world markets – remained, with signatories to the declaration not called to make specific commitments.

Poorer nations say that if they are expected to open up their markets, then protectionist measures on agricultural products should be lifted in developed parts of the world such as  the European Union and United States.

The summit declaration speaks of the need to ensure that "overall trade policies are conducive to fostering food security for all," and to "minimise the use of restrictive measures that could increase volatility of market prices."

Argentina, which imposes taxes on beef exports to keep domestic prices low, strongly objected to the text’s use of "restrictive," but despite having the support of Venezuela and several other Latin American nations, failed in having the word dropped from the declaration.

The summit was more successful in winning donor emergency aid to counter the food crisis, with several billions of dollars pledged.

Major donors included France with USD 1.5 billion, the Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank, with USD 1.5 billion, the African Development Bank with USD 1 billion, and the World Bank with USD 1.2 billion.

Other pledges included USD 773 million by Spain over four years, USD 100 million by Kuwait and USD 100 million from Venezuela.

[dpa / Expatica]