Progress Toward Food Security

Corporate Accountability Project | Mon, Feb 18, 2002

By Martin M. McLaughlin

Three and a half years ago representatives of 186 nations participated in the World Food Summit at the headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome to discuss world food securityâ€"â€"how to relieve the plight of 840 million people who did not have access to an adequate human diet, despite the fact that enough food is grown every year to feed every person on the planet. The Summit decided that the solution to this chronic problem required liberalizing trade in food and increasing food production in the countries and regions where the hungry people live. The representatives adopted as a goal the halving of world hunger by the year 2015, and they committed each of their several countries to the adoption of a National Food Plan to achieve this goal.Two countries, Canada and the United States, have published national food plans; but neither plan does much more than endorse and recount the progress of modest measures already under way at the time of the Summit. Food production has increased, but almost entirely in the industrialized exporting countries, which continue to subsidize their agriculture and maintain trade barriers against food exports of the food-deficit countries. According to Jacques Diouf, Director General of the FAO, the number of people experiencing food insecurity has declined to about 790 million; but no one is confident that the Summit's goal of cutting hunger in half by 2015 will be reached by the target date, especially if the focus remains on liberalizing global food trade. The policy dialogue on this matter continues.The Policy DialogueFor the past few months that dialogue has taken place mainly in New York meetings of the United Nations' Committee on Sustainable Development (CSD). The CSD has concentrated on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD), one of the major goals of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The longest chapter (#14) of UNCED's final document, Agenda 21, dealt with food and agriculture. The CSD meetings, which ended May 7, brought together representatives of governments, U.N. agencies, business, and civil society (NGOs); large agribusiness corporations and financial institutions, as usual, did not participate. And to some degree the opposing viewpoints surrounding the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial meeting in Seattle (see below) were repeated in New York.Like many such international dialogues where varying and opposing points of view are strongly held and expressed by participants, especially country representatives, who do not trust one another, the CSD sessions focused on key phrases. They replaced the controversial phrase ""multifunctional agriculture"" with ""multi-stakeholder dialogues"" to indicate that more people are involved in agriculture than just producers and consumers and that agriculture is about more than just growing food. Food-deficit developing countries, for example, as well as some European countries, often feel that ""multi"" language is a device for the rich countries to continue to subsidize and protect their agriculture, while surplus-producing countries view the phrase as an effort to load agriculture with non-essential and trade-distorting social and environmental baggage. But after months of often bitter argument, the CSD participants accepted compromise language at the end of their meeting, inviting the FAO and the CSD Secretariat, ""as part of the ongoing review of SARD and within existing structures and resources"" and ""in consultation with governments, other relevant organizations, and all major groups to continue the stakeholder dialogue on SARD, including the adequate and meaningful participation of stakeholders from developing countries."" Whether this agreement, which many feel represents a significant breakthrough after lengthy battles which seemed to be only about words, is verbal or real will, of course, depend on how it is implemented.Other Approaches to Food PolicyOther facets of the food security question have been explored in other venues and under other circumstances. For example, one of the decisions of the Summit was to request that the then recently established WTO, successor to the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) take up the special problems of agriculture in low-income food-importing countries. After ignoring the request for three years, the WTO, as noted, put it on its agenda for its Ministerial Meeting in Seattle in late 1999. Discussion there was impeded and eventually suspended by a combination of the street-based protests outside the meeting and the eventual concerted resistance of developing-country delegates and ministers inside.In Seattle and five months later at the spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, DC, additional attention, both substantive and emotional, was added to the policy mix with its new focus on food safetyâ€"â€"especially the strong effort at trade in genetically modified (GM) foods, led by the United States and Canada, which lead among producers of GM corn, cotton, and soybeans. Heavy advertising of these foods by producers, combined with strong opposition on behalf of consumers and the environment, found an excellent fit with protests against corporate agriculture, and economic globalization generallyâ€"â€"of which the Bank and the Fund were perceived as instigators and proponents as the vanguard of global capitalism. Although, in contrast to Seattle, there was little disruption of the regular business of these Washington-based institutions, the fact that there are differing views about economic policy (the ""Washington consensus""), as well as about food and agriculture in particular, reached the media and may have penetrated the consciousness of policymakers as well.The U.S. National Food PlanThe U.S. Plan was unveiled at the end of March, 1999, amid considerable fanfare. With 191 recommendations, it was the product of two-and-a-half years of work by a U.S. Government interagency working group (IWG) which included a score of Federal agencies. After government lawyers had ruled that the kind of collaboration that had taken place between NGOs and the government before the Summit could not continue into the policy implementation period, a new Committee on Food Security (CFS) was created under an existing private sector committee to monitor the IWG. At the end of the long preparatory period the CFS and the IWG convened a meeting to announce and publish the National Food Plan, whose scope had also been limited by the government's proscription of any new costs, institutions, or policy suggestions.Nevertheless, the numerous proposals reflected the U.S. Government's reluctant acceptance of the fact that there is continuing food insecurity in the United States, partly brought on by changes in the welfare system in the wake of the welfare reform legislation of 1996. Somewhat surprisingly, the National Food Plan has very little to say about the food production system in the United States, which is in a deepening crisis, at least for family farmers, because of the loss of export markets in East Asia and other regions affected by the so-called Asian ""meltdown"" of late 1998. Family farmers are faced with unmarketable surpluses and falling prices just at a time when apparently burgeoning sales in those regions had prompted them to increase productionâ€"â€"resulting in a harvest that can't be sold to traders, operators of bulging grain elevators, or producers of meat and poultry.Agriculture and GlobalizationThe food and agriculture sector constitutes a major segment of the overall economy, especially as it is affected by the inexorable process of globalization. In many ways the sector highlights the social, environmental, and economic problems that globalization presents. When the cost-benefit ratio of food production and distribution omits environmental costs, which for agriculture are major, the economic judgment becomes suspect. When the overriding motive for economic activity by the transnational corporations that dominate the system is to maximize profit, considerations of social equity and environmental integrity tend to fade into the background. Thus the environment is damaged, the income/wealth gap between the rich and the poor broadens, and the dominant corporate economic power is reconfirmed in its lack of accountability. These points more or less summarize the concerns that have motivated protesters in Seattle and Washington and that much of the media and many politicians and academicians condemn as anti-capitalism. SummaryHunger continues to be a major phenomenon of our time and a symptom of the malfunctioning of the globalizing economic system. Although they are less often carried out than endorsed, the remedies for hunger and the actions to prevent it are known. What we continue to lack, as President Kennedy noted nearly forty years ago and many others have repeated since, is the will to take and promote those actions. Much, therefore, still needs to be done, but many groups are working on the problem of food securityâ€"â€"for the short-term and the long-term. In a future article we shall describe some of these organizations and how interested persons can participate in their activities."