Monday, November 16, 2009

World Food Summit Opens Amid Charges It May Be ‘Waste of Time’

World leaders start a United Nations summit on food security in Rome today that international aid agencies say may be a “waste of time” because it won’t commit donors to provide more money to end world hunger.

A draft of the final declaration for the Nov. 16 to Nov. 18 “World Summit on Food Security,” promises no new financial commitments. Governments will “reinforce all our efforts” to halve the number of hungry by 2015, it says, and rich nations should reverse the decline of aid dedicated to agriculture, which fell from 19 percent in 1980 to 3.8 percent in 2006.

Jacques Diouf, who is hosting the meeting as director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has urged governments to invest $44 billion a year to end chronic hunger suffered by 1.02 billion people and achieve “food security.” World hunger has continued to rise even with food prices falling from their peaks of last year, which coincided with FAO’s previous summit where donors pledged $11 billion in aid.

The lack of new funding requests prompted two aid agencies, Oxfam and ActionAid, to say on Nov. 12 the summit may be a “waste of time and money,” and that “governments are at risk of throwing away a great chance” to reduce the number of hungry. Francisco Sarmento, ActionAid’s food rights coordinator, called the declaration “just a rehash of old platitudes.”

Sixty heads of state and government plan to attend the meeting, which Pope Benedict XVI and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will address, FAO said.

Previous Crisis

Last year’s surge in food prices sparked riots in more than a dozen countries from Ivory Coast to Haiti, where the unrest prompted the dismissal of Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis.

Prices for wheat, which supplies about 20 percent of food calories consumed in the world, more than doubled between the start of 2007 and a peak in March 2008. Soaring energy prices boosted costs of fertilizer and transport while also lifting demand for grain-based alternative fuels like ethanol.

Today’s summit opens as the Rome-based UN agency predicts world cereal stocks will expand by about 4 million metric tons to 509 million tons next year, the highest level since 2002. Saudi Arabia has agreed to pay the $2.5 million cost of the gathering.

The Group of Eight nations, at a July summit in L’Aquila, Italy, approved $20 billion in aid over three years to help farmers in developing nations grow and sell food.

‘Summit Fatigue’

“My biggest concern is that we have to make sure that there is no summit fatigue,” Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior FAO economist, said in an interview. “If FAO felt there was a need for another summit, it is probably because it felt that the previous ones haven’t achieved what they were supposed to.”

Ertharin Cousin, U.S. Ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome, says the international community should use the summit as an opportunity to redefine how rich and poor countries work together to boost food production and cut poverty.

“When there is an opportunity, you don’t say ‘it is just another summit,’ you say ‘OK we are having this, how do we make it add value,’ and that was our goal,” the ambassador said in a Nov. 10 interview.

Developing countries must design their own plans and donor nations must work with them as partners, Cousin said.

“For us to suggest at the global level that we can have a patterned answer that is going to resolve all the issues on the entire continent of Africa of 54 countries is far too simplistic and very naïve,” she said.

Private Sector Role

At a FAO-organized meeting with food and agriculture companies, including Nestle, Unilever, and Bunge Ltd., in Milan on Nov. 12-13, private sector officials pledged to increase investment in farming in poor countries.

“We stand ready to invest meaningfully to help build national capacities in applied agriculture and food systems research and technology transfer in developing countries,” the companies said in a statement after the meeting.

Foreign direct investment in agriculture tripled to more than $3 billion since 2000, FAO said in report on its Web site.

Oxfam and ActionAid say the best way to reduce the number of hungry is to target resources on small farming families, who make up a third of the world’s population, FAO estimates.

Hunger Frontline

“Smallholder farmers, mostly women, are on the frontline in the fight against world poverty, hunger and climate change and we must not continue to ignore them,” said Frederic Mousseau of Oxfam.

While increased cereal production has slowed the rise in global food prices, Abbassian of FAO predicts future shortages and price hikes.

“The one certainty is that there will be a food crisis, and the reason is simple: we haven’t done much to prevent such a thing from happening,” he said. “We have talked a lot, we have committed a lot, but we haven’t really acted.”

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