Rome: World leaders at a UN summit embraced an ambitious strategy to combat a food crisis that is causing violent riots and threatening to push up to a billion people across the globe into hunger.
Delegates from 181 countries pledged on Thursday to reduce trade barriers and boost agricultural production to combat rising food prices, but some nations and groups maintained more concrete measures will be needed.
After three days of wrangling, delegates at the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization approved a declaration resolving to ease the suffering caused by soaring food prices and step up investment in agriculture.
The summit struck a balance on the contentious issue of biofuels, recognizing “challenges and opportunities” in using food for fuel.
The declaration called for swift help for small-holder farmers in poor countries who need seed, fertilizers and animal feed in time for the approaching planting season. UN officials and humanitarian groups have pointed out that such an approach has already helped millions of farmers in Malawi, where food security has strongly improved thanks to a support package based mainly on a fertilizer subsidy.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had told the summit that import taxes and export restrictions must also be minimized to alleviate hunger, and the document called for “reducing trade barriers and market-distorting policies.”
“We took the measure of the problem of hunger in the world correctly,” said FAO head Jacques Diouf. He noted the gathering wasn’t a pledging conference but billions of US dollars from countries, regional banks and the World Bank had been promised in recent days.
The strategy laid down in Rome will have to translate quickly into farm and trade policies in each country, as even before the crisis there were some 850 million undernourished people in the world, with the number increasing rapidly, according to UN officials.
Soaring fuel prices drive up costs of fertilizers, farm vehicle use and transport of food to market. Speculation and increased consumption of meat and dairy goods by populations of China, India and other booming developing nations is also considered a main factor in the food price hikes.
Some countries felt the Rome summit had not gone far enough.
Argentina said it was unhappy the declaration didn’t blame subsidies — generously granted to farmers in the United States, the European Union and other Western food-producers — for a major role in driving up prices.
Monica Robelo Raffone, head of Nicaragua’s delegation, contended that the conference had failed to offer solutions or identify the reasons for the price increases.
“It doesn’t mention the real causes behind the crisis: the high oil prices, the market speculation, the subsidies ... it’s a step back,” she said.
But the gathering did win praise from several countries and non-governmental organizations.
“We believe that the commitments and the pledges made here will help us create an African revolution” that will improve technology, training and production in the continent’s agriculture, said South Africa’s agriculture minister, Lulu Xingwana.
US agriculture secretary Ed Schafer welcomed the declaration’s tone on biofuels, saying the United States remains “firmly committed to the sustainable production and use of biofuels, both domestically and globally.”
The biofuel issue was a volatile one at the summit. The summit struck a balance on the fuels, which are made from crops such as sugarcane and corn, saying that “in-depth studies” are necessary to ensure that the environmentally friendly energy source does not take food off the table.
Brazil, the United States and other big producers of biofuels disagree on which crops are better-suited to produce energy and how much they contribute to driving up food prices. UN officials, including Ban, have called on the international community to issue guidelines to ensure biofuel crops do not compete with food crops and do not encourage deforestation.
The British aid group Oxfam praised the declaration’s focus on increased aid for agriculture and said the agreement in Rome had set concrete measures to combat hunger on the agenda of the July meeting of Group of Eight nations in Japan.