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DEVELOPMENT: Food Crisis an Opportunity to Rethink Policy

Aileen Kwa

GENEVA, Jun 18 2008 (IPS) - Southern governments have stressed the need for developing countries to use the food crisis as an opportunity to rethink development strategies and to put in place policies that support agricultural development.

The new push came at a high-level dialogue on food and energy security that was organised jointly Tuesday by the government of Indonesia and the South Centre, an intergovernmental body of Southern governments.

"We want to be able to understand the real causes of the food crisis," executive director of the South Centre Yash Tandon said. "There are multiple causes, but some are more fundamental and structural than others, and we need to identify these."

He went on to note that with every crisis, there is an opportunity. "In the 1980s and 1990s, we had a similar food crisis. We had food riots in Eastern and Western Africa. We used to call them IMF (International Monetary Fund) food riots. But we lost the opportunity to address the causes of the food crisis at the structural level. We handed the solutions to the very structures that in my view caused those crises. We have to understand this crisis properly and take this challenge in our own hands."

These ideas were supported by the acting deputy secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Lakshmi Puri.

"We have been talking about this as a wake-up call," said Puri. "This is a wake-up call in the area of development and development strategies. The South has to wake up to certain realities and mistakes it has made…It is a wake-up call for regional action. And it is time for a rethink of global strategies. The whole theology of food self-sufficiency and food security being served through imports or not, versus local production – this whole thing needs to be revisited."

Puri said that many have laid the blame for tight food supplies and hence higher prices on India and China's increased food consumption.

"Many times, it is said that India and China's demand is going up and that is why we have a crisis. Demand going up is a success of development and is a positive thing to be welcomed. What has failed is the supply side for a number of reasons.

"The agricultural supply capacity of many developing countries has been suffering from distorted incentives and insufficient support from both domestic and international policy makers. This development failure lies at the heart of the crisis, and we must urgently reverse this trend if we are to avoid a repeat of the crisis."

Oxfam International's representative Teresa Cavero noted that the underlying cause of the price crisis "did not fall from heaven, but was due to decades of wrong policies. Developing countries have been forced to let agriculture fall apart. Through structural adjustment policies, countries have dismantled the role of the state and its capacity to intervene. In many countries the private sector did not occupy the space left by the state."

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) representative Josef Schmidhuber said that due to the overlap between the food and biofuels markets, "food prices will remain high as long as energy prices are high. Higher food production is not an antidote to higher food prices in the long run. Even if we try to address the problem (of high prices) through higher production, we will not succeed because the energy market will siphon off the production."

Nevertheless, he noted that the current situation is "the best opportunity to have a renaissance of global agriculture."

Schmidhuber also said that "whilst the majority of our countries are net sufferers, the hardest hit are countries that are net importers of both food and fuel. Many Least Developed Countries (LDCs) fall into this rubric." The 49 Least Developed Countries, according to United Nations classification, are those with a per capita income of less than 750 dollars per annum.

But the Geneva dialogue revealed that there is no consensus on solutions to the food crisis amongst governments, international institutions and civil society.

Cuban representative Juan Antonio Fernández registered his deep disappointment with the outcome of the FAO High Level Conference on World Food Security in Rome earlier this month.

"The outcome in Rome was not the best. The short-term solutions offered by the most powerful will not resolve the hunger of people." Fernández later told IPS that "you cannot find any human rights perspective in the declaration. This had been proposed by Cuba. Just the recognition of the right to food as a fundamental human right was rejected. The target was so low. We made a reservation on the Declaration, together with Argentina, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela."

Oxfam's Cavero said "we disagree that concluding the Doha Round is a solution to the food crisis. Trade rules are long-term and are largely irreversible. Any agreement is likely to undermine rather than strengthen developing countries' food system."

Yash Tandon noted the different strategies of participants. "Broadly speaking, two views came out of the dialogue. One view started with the rise in global prices as offering an opportunity for investments in agriculture, including, for example, the suggestion of a Green Revolution for Africa. The Green Revolution, however, has had a controversial history, and in the past has placed food production in the hands of corporations and suppliers of hybrid seeds and fertilizers, etc.

"The other view started with the idea of prices that must be guaranteed to the small peasants who constitute the bulk of the population in many developing countries. The two views lead to different strategies." He said that he preferred the small-farmer rather than the corporate-oriented strategy as the response to the present food crisis.

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