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Food Security

FAO summit with scant results

by Ellen Thalman

In brief

Philippinerin demonstriert gegen hohe Reispreise

Philippinerin demonstriert gegen hohe Reispreise

As corn and soybean prices hit record highs and the United Nations predicted that prices will continue to rise in the coming years, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food summit June 3-6, called to help combat those problems, was derailed by disputes over biofuels and export restrictions.

Despite the weak declaration, which barely went beyond calling for “eliminating and securing food for all today and tomorrow,” summit delegates did show strong support for the UN’s recent agricultural development initiative.

A number of countries announced financing for fighting hunger and agricultural development, amounting to a total $18.36 billion, including $6.06 billion committed earlier this year, the FAO said. Among others, France and the Islamic Development Bank each pledged $1.5 billion over five years, the US offered $5 billion for this year and next, Spain announced $773 million over the next 4 years and the UK $590 million.

Earlier this year, the UN announced plans to resume agricultural investment for the first time in 25 years. Initial expenditure of $17 million on seeds, fertilizers and tools began in June, but the FAO estimates around $1.7 billion will be required for the planting seasons through 2009 to help revive the long-neglected agricultural systems, especially in Africa.

Still, the question of just how to boost productivity remained disputed – with the US supporting the use of genetically modified products and Europe remaining opposed.

The main controversy at the summit surrounded the use of food crops for biofuels. While the FAO contends that biofuels demand is responsible for around 30% of the recent food price hikes, the US says only 3% can be traced to biofuels. The US, Brazil and several European countries argued that biofuels were not the primary reason for rising prices. High oil prices, bad weather, rising demand from developing countries and export restrictions were named as contributing factors.

The summit declaration called merely for “more dialogue,” and said that it was “essential to address the challenges and opportunities posed by biofuels.” It also called for “in-depth studies” to see if biofuels production is “sustainable” and whether or not it threatens global food security.

In his opening speech to the delegates, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said it was incomprehensible that huge subsidies were being used to divert cereals from human consumption “mostly to satisfy a thirst for fuels for vehicles.” He also appealed to world leaders for $30 billion to revive agricultural production and “enable 862 million hungry people to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food and thus the right to life.” Diouf warned that hunger-driven crises could “endanger world peace and security” in the future if not addressed now.

Food export restrictions were also a source of contention at the summit, after some of the world largest grains, rice and soybean producers, such as Argentina, Russia, India, Egypt, China and Vietnam, recently curbed exports. Several countries lobbied to omit mention of the bans from the final declaration.

NGOs as Germany’s Protestant Church Development Service (EED) or FIAN (Food First Information and Action Network) criticised the conference as a whole as “lost chance”. They say that the impacts of climate-change and agro-fuels on global nutrition were not adequately addressed.

Ellen Thalman