Further Progress Toward Food Security?

Corporate Accountability Project | Mon, Feb 18, 2002

By Martin M. McLaughlin

Progress toward world food security is slow, spasmodic, and uncoordinated. Among the 186 countries represented at the UN's 1996 World Food Summit, only Canada and the United States have sent the FAO the promised national food plan to move toward the goals of the Summit. The U.S. Plan claims to outline ""the means by which the United States will address the World Food Summit's goals"" and is the basis of the US presentation at a mid-September 2000 session of the U.N. Food and Agriculture (FAO)'s Committee on Food Security (CFS). As we have noted in earlier articles, the Plan's list of ongoing projects is mainly domestic and is almost entirely remedialâ€"â€"relief of hunger, not prevention of it. Moreover, there is no attention to why the global food system leaves one seventh of humanity hungry despite abundant annual harvests. There is, regrettably, little consistency in the policies and programs of the United States, by far the dominant country in this economic sector, as in many others.FOUR RELEVANT STORIESAlthough they appear to be symptomatic of this lack of policy coherence, each of the four stories which follow below relate in one way or another to the food security issue.The first appeared in the Washington Post Outlook section on Sunday, July 30, 2000. In it, under the headline ""Who Could Be Against This?"" regular columnist Mary McGrory described a Congressional hearing on an International School Lunch Program costing about $300 million to be administered by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP). Its proponents are former Senator George McGovern, who is now US Ambassador to the FAO and other UN food agencies located in Rome; former Senator Bob Dole; President Clinton; and other Congressional anti-hunger advocates. The audience was described by Ms. McGrory as ""those splendid souls from non-governmental hunger groups who wrestle with misery on every continent."" The morality of the project was described as ""crystal clear""; with such benign side effects as increased literacy, schooling for girls, and more jobs for the poorâ€"â€"as well as a benefit to U.S. farmers, who supply about 50 percent of the WFP's commodities.A second article appeared on Page 3 of the Main Section of the Washington Post on the same day, under the heading: ""Small Wins for Family Farms."" It reported that the US Department of Agriculture plans to ""hold a referendum in September on ending mandatory assessments on hog-farmers for pork industry promotion'"" and to discuss changing some rules in the meat-packing industry to require more public notice of marketing contracts so that small farmers could benefit from fairer and more ""transparent"" transactions. Several organizations serving small farmers have been decrying increased concentration of ownership in the pork market, as well as the contrived opaqueness of the system, which favors the giant corporations. The article notes that ""four big companies control 82 percent of American beef packing, about 75 percent of hog and sheep slaughter, and half of all chicken production."" Seed production and the grain trade present similar situations. Smithfield Farms of Virginia, the largest hog producer in the world, bought both of its closest competitors last year. One well-known U.S. agricultural economist asked rhetorically: Do we really want a system where our farmers are serfs and [corporations] supply a package of inputs like seed and fertilizer and take over as many functions as they can, other than plowing?""On the Sherlock Holmes principle that what may be most significant is that the dog did not bark, there is a third story that does not seem to have been featured in a newspaper article: At the World Food Summit of November 1996 the 186 participating nations agreed to speed up the implementation of a special codicil to the agreement on agriculture (AoA) called the Marrakech Decision, which called for special help to low-income food-importing developing countries (LIFDCs) in meeting the requirements of the new (1994) World Trade Organization (WTO). For a variety of reasons this subject was never taken up in the ministerial sessions of the WTO; as a result, a further session on agricultural trade was scheduled for the latter part of June, 2000. The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) prepared a policy paper for discussion, focusing on five subjects: market access (tariff reductions in all markets); export subsidies (e.g., eliminating ""single-desk"" exporters, or national trade boards); domestic support (elimination of all except ""minimal trade distortions""); food security (food aid to supplement freer trade); and several ""sectoral initiatives."" This was described by a USTR spokesman as a food security program based on comprehensive agricultural reform; in fact, its most likely benefit (aside from corporate profits) would be increased availability of food, but not the access to it needed for food security. It would subordinate that access to our profit.There is, finally, a fourth story, which mainly continues our discussion of Progress toward Food Security (Center Focus, July 2000)â€"â€"the present status of the National Food Plan. Members of the NGO (nongovernmental organization) Working Group on Food Security have been collaborating with USDA (as lead agency in the Interagency Working Group) in preparation for the CFS Session mentioned above. At that session delegations are asked to focus on four of the seven World Food Summit Commitments in light of their own actual or potential national food plans. Since Canada is the only other country that has adopted such a plan and North America, the world's largest regional producer and exporter of food, has not held a regional meeting on this subject, the working groups have been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to schedule a joint meeting. It now appears that an NGO meeting with U.S. Government officials will take place August 22, along with representatives of the U.S. Food Security Advisory Committee (FSAC) and perhaps some Canadian participation. Regrettably, the U.S. position has not yet moved beyond the situation described in the previous issue of Center Focus.COMMENTHow do these four stories bear on the food security issue? The first, the school lunch proposal, is at least a short-term effort to get some limited number of vulnerable people fed; but it is remedial, not preventive, and does not track with the basic ""why"" question. The third story, the trade story that did not make the news, repeats the mantra of the World Food Summit and the promoters of globalization that liberalized trade will produce food security, ignoring the fact that availability of food is not the problem, but rather access to it. The fourth story, following up on the Summit and the Plan, simply continues the lack of U.S.Government attention to the real flaws in the food system and therefore the inability of the United States to assume the kind of leadership that would be consistent with its commanding dominance of the food system. Only the second of these four stories, the effort to eliminate one small element of unfairness from the functioning of the system, constitutes a genuine move toward food security.The stories also underscore the necessity to engage all stakeholders in designing public policy in this, as in other, areas. Government officials, including members of Congress, need to sit at the table with civil society representatives and the for-profit private sector at the same time, so that the resulting decisions can reflect fairly the contributions of all the players. Such a process, however difficult to achieve, would be an expression of real and effective leadership."