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FOOD AID OR FOOD SOVEREIGNTY?

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OAKLAND, Oct 18 2005 (IPS) - International food aid, initiated in 1954, is the most publicised instrument put forward to fight hunger, especially in southern countries, where millions of tons of food are shipped each year. However, geared towards the dumping of cereal surpluses in developing countries, the aid system has promoted the trade and foreign policy interests of the donor countries at the expense of the hungry over the last fifty years, writes Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, a research and educational institute. The opening up of markets, along with food aid in kind, has deluged developing countries with agricultural commodities dumped by developed nations at below the cost of production. This has deepened the agrarian crisis in the developing countries, whose one billion-dollar food trade surplus of the 1970s became an 11 billion-dollar deficit by 2001, converting developing countries into major importers of food while destroying livelihoods of small family farmers. What the hungry really need is an enforcement mechanism that ensures the human right to food. This would require support for national policies that protect the livelihoods of small farmers and increase national food availability. Examples from hunger crises around the world clearly prove that policies that help countries develop their own agricultural sector and strengthen their small-scale farmers actually help feed more people in the long run.

There is another form of hunger that is less visible: the chronic day-in and day-out hunger which affects an estimated 852 million people — and this number is growing at a rate of almost four million per year. This widespread hunger rarely makes the evening news but it is just as deadly. Each year it kills between 30 and 50 million people. Its victims include approximately 6.5 million children each year — one every five seconds. Small farmers, our food producers, make up nearly 50 percent of the world’s hungry population and are often hardest hit.

In November 1996, heads of state from 186 countries gathered in Rome for the World Food Summit and pledged to reduce by half the number of chronically undernourished people (815 million then) by the year 2015. But the current hunger statistics make it obvious that the fight against hunger has yet to show any gains.

International food aid, initiated in 1954, is the most publicized instrument put forward to fight hunger, especially in southern countries, where millions of tons of food are shipped each year. However, geared towards the dumping of cereal surpluses in developing countries, the aid system has promoted the trade and foreign policy interests of the donor countries at the expense of the hungry over the last fifty years.

Agricultural liberalisation, another tool recommended as a way to combat poverty and hunger in the developing world, has actually aggravated food insecurity. It has required the elimination of state intervention in agriculture, including mechanisms such as marketing boards which controlled prices and allowed governments to buy agricultural commodities from farmers and to maintain a rolling stock that could be released into the market in the event of a bad harvest.

The removal of price controls has lead to the volatility of food prices, which in turn negatively affects both consumers and producers. For example, the current famine in Niger is less the result of a bad harvest (the last harvest was only 12 percent below the bumper harvest of 2003) than a consequence of private traders hoarding food commodities to profit from high prices while making food unaffordable for the poorest.

The opening up of markets, along with food aid in kind, has deluged developing countries with agricultural commodities dumped by developed nations at below the cost of production. This has deepened the agrarian crisis in the developing countries, whose one- billion-dollar food trade surplus of the 1970s became an 11- billion-dollar deficit by 2001, converting developing countries into major importers of food while destroying livelihoods of small family farmers.

An attempt to avoid agricultural dumping, coupled with the fear of the displacement of commercial imports, has led to growing international pressure for the enforcement of food aid practices by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the international trade body that advocates agricultural liberalisation.

In a study conducted by the Oakland Institute this year (Food Aid or Food Sovereignty: Ending World Hunger in Our Time), we have concluded that this position overlooks two fundamental elements. First, food trade is largely dominated by developed countries and a few developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa, who are affected by the displacement of commercial imports. Second, increased food trade, controlled by international agribusinesses and large-scale farmers, will not provide market access and benefit the poorest countries and their small farmers.

World hunger will be again at stake at the December WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong. The WTO, as the agency to regulate food aid, will not address world hunger and will serve the interests of competing food-exporting countries. Furthermore, developed countries are putting pressure on developing countries to dismantle tariffs and open their markets to increased dumping of agricultural commodities by agribusiness cartels. Any additional cuts to the agricultural tariff in developing countries, the only instrument available for protecting farmers who have no subsidies to offset the effects of low commodity prices, would unleash more hunger and destitution. For example, India has reduced its tariff rate to almost 65 percent below the average applied rate in 1990-91, and is reeling from depressed global prices. Home to some 221.1 million food-insecure people, India is faced with rampant suicide rates among farmers, and the National Sample Survey Organisation reports that nearly 48.6 percent of the 90 million farm households are caught in a debt trap.

What the hungry really need is an enforcement mechanism that ensures the human right to food. This would require support for national policies that protect and restore the livelihoods of small farmers and increase national food availability. After all, examples from hunger crises around the world clearly prove that policies that help countries develop their own agricultural sector and strengthen their small-scale farmers, actually help feed more people in the long run. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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