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AGRICULTURE: ‘Don’t Do It Europe’s Way’

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jul 7 2008 (IPS) - Europe’s system of agricultural support should not be emulated in other regions of the world grappling with high food prices, the top United Nations official for humanitarian affairs has suggested.

Earlier this year, Michel Barnier, the French agriculture minister, stated that the original rationale behind the European Union’s common agricultural policy (CAP) was to ensure self-sufficiency in food and that this could serve as a “good model” for developing similar ways of protecting farming in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Barnier’s comments have been followed by bickering over agriculture in recent weeks between France and the European Commission, the EU executive. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has alleged that Peter Mandelson, the EU’s trade commissioner, is seeking to destroy support for farmers in the ongoing round of world trade talks. Mandelson, who negotiates on behalf of all 27 EU governments, including France, has in turn claimed that Sarkozy is trying to weaken his position in the negotiations.

John Holmes, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, took issue with Barnier’s recommendation Jul. 3. “I’m not sure it (the CAP) is a model that could easily be replicated elsewhere,” Holmes, a former British ambassador to Paris, told IPS. “There are problems with the system such as its trade-distorting subsidies.”

Holmes was visiting Brussels to take part in a conference on the role of agriculture in tackling global hunger. France, which assumed the EU’s presidency at the beginning of this month, has identified agriculture as one of the priority themes for its six months at the Union’s helm. It is seeking to stimulate debate about what will happen to the CAP, once finance already allocated to it expires in 2013.

Holmes, who sits on a UN task force charged with examining the appropriate short and longer-term responses to the global food crisis, urged the EU’s policy-makers to address how their lavish farm subsidy regime has had a deleterious effect on poor countries. “With the new circumstances, there is a serious need to look at how trade-distorting subsidies affect the ability of developing countries to produce and export,” he said.

While Holmes argued that more food assistance is required to help the poor deal with soaring prices, he added: “In the longer term we need to address the question of why there has been a lack of investment in agriculture over the last 20 to 30 years. The proportion of international aid that is helping agriculture has fallen from 10 percent to 3 percent. Those proportions need to be reversed again.”

Hans-Gert Pöttering, president of the European Parliament, said that poverty and hunger cannot be accepted as inevitable.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the world has the capacity to feed 12 billion people – twice its population today. And yet 5.6 million children die as a result of malnutrition each year.

Josep Borrell, chairman of the European Parliament’s development committee, said that the spike in food prices had followed the implementation of European policies that had kept prices low in poor countries, with devastating consequences for farmers’ income. “We’ve created a vicious circle,” he said. “We needed low price food to keep the urban population alive. But this damaged food production.”

Henri Rouille D’Orfeuil from Coordination Sud, an umbrella group for French anti-poverty campaigners, argued that international trade policies have created “a pauperisation of farmers” in recent years. “When the world market suffers, the national and local market is no longer present to counteract this.”

Mariann Fischer Boel, the European commissioner for agriculture, noted that despite the riots seen over inflation in many poor countries in the past few months, food prices have been decreasing over the last 30 years. In 1975, cereals were twice as expensive as they are today. “The problem (recently) is that prices have been skyrocketing over a very, very short period,” she said.

While several European governments have been reluctant to authorise the planting and sale of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Fischer Boel suggested that biotechnology could be beneficial for Africa. “I know that some hate when we talk about GMOs,” she added. “But they are part of the discussion that we need to have about who will feed the world. I don’t say they are the only solution but part of the discussion needed.”

Greenpeace argued that biotechnology offers no cure to the structural problems facing agriculture in poor countries. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the current increase in food prices,” said Marco Contiero, a campaigner with the environmental group. “Any claim that a single technology, such as genetically modified plants, is a silver bullet for our future food supply is simply false, and distracts attention away from the real solutions. Modern, bio-diverse, non-GM farming methods that ensure higher yields, that are more climate resilient, which do not destroy natural resources and can provide better livelihoods for farmers around the world are the only way forward.”

Saliou Sarr, the Senegalese coordinator with the network of West African agricultural organisations (known by its French acronym ROPPA), noted that African governments have agreed to devote at least 10 percent of their national budgets to supporting farming by 2015. Many, however, are struggling to reach that target.

In return for receiving finance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, numerous poor countries were required to slash their expenditure on farming in the 1980s. Lennart Bage, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, pointed out that governments in Africa reduced their spending on agriculture by one-third.

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