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Far from a turning point on hunger, summit flops


Heading into the June 10-13 World Food Summit in Rome, virtually all observers agreed on the need for a dramatic new commitment to combating global hunger. Some 24,000 people die each day from malnutrition, according to United Nations statistics, and 800 million people are undernourished.

After the summit, which was billed as a potential turning point in global policy on hunger relief, virtually everyone agreed on something else: The meeting was a flop.

Disagreement focused solely on whom to blame.

While 4,000 delegates from 182 countries attended the meeting, including several dozen heads of state and 30 prime ministers, mostly from Africa, only two G-8 nations were represented by chief executives -- Spain and host Italy. The others sent low-level delegations, leading critics to charge a lack of commitment on the part of the world’s wealthiest nations.

“This is the poor’s summit. We invited all the premiers of the rich countries, but no one came,” said Jacques Diouf, a Senegalese diplomat who heads the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the principal organizer of the summit. “We have a good indication of the political priority given to the tragedy of hunger.”

The first United Nations-sponsored World Food Summit, held in Rome in 1996, produced solemn pledges to cut the numbers of those suffering from hunger in half by 2015, an aim that analysts concede has not come close to being realized. The number of hungry people is currently falling at the rate of 6 million a year, far short of the 22 million needed to reach the 1996 goal.

While the United Nations has called on developed nations to set aside 0.7 percent of gross domestic product for aid to developing nations for hunger relief, only four have actually met the target: Norway, Sweden, Holland and Denmark. The United States ranks last on the list, devoting 0.1 percent of gross domestic product to such aid.

At this year’s summit, Diouf called for $24 billion to fund a global anti-hunger program.

Some participants from the developing world could not resist pointing out that while 800 million people, almost entirely in the Third World, go hungry, an estimated 300 million, mostly in the developed West, are obese. Given that contrast, the nonchalance of Western nations clearly rankled.

Even John Paul II got into the act, complaining on the eve of the summit that global hunger is caused by “human inertia and self-centeredness.” It did not take much imagination to grasp just whose inertia the pope had in mind.

Yet some Western leaders were not in the mood for mea culpas. England’s minister for international development, Claire Short, fired back June 12 that the summit was a “waste of time,” and that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization first had to “reform itself” if it wants to solve the hunger problem.

Meanwhile, across town a parallel summit organized by 1,600 delegates representing around 600 nongovernmental organizations struck a “pox on both your houses” stance, saying that the debate between diplomats over how much spending on hunger relief is enough misses the point.

The Forum for Food Sovereignty, which regards food as a right rather than a commodity, argued that food security can best be guaranteed by allowing nations to determine their own production and distribution policies based on their needs and agricultural practices. This challenges the capitalist assumption that the free market is always the best way to organize the food trade.

The best way to feed the hungry, according to the forum, is to ensure the local agricultural producers remain viable. Giant agribusiness companies must not monopolize common resources such as land, water, and seed, the activists argued.

A major issue at both summits was the role of genetically modified organisms in the fight against hunger. Developing nations, along with ecological activists in Europe, tend to see genetically modified crops both as potentially unsafe -- “Frankenstein foods” -- and as a Trojan horse for the financial interests of multinational biotechnology companies. Those companies, the activists complain, seek to make Third World farmers dependent on the herbicides needed for the genetically modified crops. They also want, according to critics, to eliminate plant stocks freely available in favor of those for which the companies hold intellectual property rights.

Developed nations, above all the United States, argue that improvements in biotechnology hold the key to solving world hunger by increasing yields and lowering costs. The companies that develop those technologies, U.S. diplomats argue, have a right to recover their investments.

The United States found an unlikely ally on the issue of genetically modified organisms: Cuba, whose foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, asserted that malnutrition will not be eliminated until poor countries receive “genetically improved seeds.”

The lone political result from the summit was a cautious endorsement of genetically modified crops in a final statement. The document called for “introducing new experimental technologies, including biotechnologies, in a secure fashion.”

Even the U.S. embassy to the Holy See, normally not a major player in international trade issues, was enlisted to make the case for genetically modified crops. The embassy organized sessions with the press for Nobel Prize-winning American scientist Norman Borlaug, whose pioneering work with wheat yields in the 1940s and 1950s helped trigger the “Green Revolution.”

At one such session, which took place June 12 at NCR’s Rome office, Borlaug questioned the credentials of activists who purport to speak for the poor in opposing genetically modified crops.

“It’s easy to put words in the mouth of suppressed peoples,” Borlaug told journalists. “If the benefits were explained to the people, I’m not convinced that their answer would be negative.”

The U.S. embassy to the Holy See set up a June 13 session for Borlaug to discuss the same issues with Vatican officials from the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Secretariat of State.

Yet Borlaug broke with capitalist orthodoxy when asked about objections that promoting genetically modified organisms would lead to dependence on fertilizers and other products developed by giant biotechnology companies such as Monsanto.

“Why can’t there be good public sector research, to be competitive with the private sector?” he asked. “Patents can be given to the public sector too, to be distributed for the good of all.”

He also suggested that Western governments would better promote the aim of global security, including the “war against terrorism,” by investing in eradicating hunger rather than in arms.

Borlaug’s arguments were not universally persuasive. Indian delegate Vandana Shiva claimed that 80 percent of participants were unhappy with the language on genetically modified crops, but went along as “victims of blackmail.” They were afraid to lose aid, Shiva said, if they did not approve the provision the United States wanted.

Borlaug said that the problem is actually not production, but distribution. There is sufficient food in the world, but insufficient rail systems and highways to get it to the hungry. Building that infrastructure, he said, does not interest the World Bank or other international agencies, who typically want to see results within five years when they finance projects.

On that note, Borlaug, too, rated the World Food Summit a disappointment.

“I listened to the first four papers at the plenary session, and they were right on target,” he said. “But there was no sense of how to put any of this into action. That’s what’s missing.”

Related Web sites

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Forum for Food Sovereignty

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002