Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

ASIA-FOOD: Region Could Rue Free Trade Thrust Under WTO Rules

Kunda Dixit

BANGKOK, Dec 9 1996 (IPS) - An international free market in food under new World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules could undermine Asia’s ability to feed itself at a time when the world’s most populous region is already facing an unprecedented drop in food stocks.

So say critics of the free trade thrust being pushed by Western member countries of the Geneva-based WTO which is holding its first ministerial conference this week in Singapore.

The five-day meeting, which started Monday, will discuss a range of free trade initiatives, with agriculture expected to be one of the areas where developing and industrialised nations will not see eye to eye on the pace and extent of the liberalisation process.

“The trade regime that is being pushed is going to undermine food security in developing countries,” warns Gurmit Singh of Malaysia’s Environment Protection Society.

He says free trade will put poorer nations at the mercy of the markets at a time when international cereal prices have soared due to shortages and falling stocks.

As Asia prospers economically, it is emerging as a major market for the world’s main food exporting nations like the United States, Canada and Australia.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that East Asian countries import 50 million tons of grain a year — more than any other region in the world.

But this will be nothing compared to the expected demand from China, in the next century.

China’s cereal production is plauteauing off at a time when the gap between production and demand is widening. China, with a population of 1.2 billion people, imported five million tons of grain in 1990, and according to the Worldwatch Institute, imports are expected to top 480 million tons by the year 2030.

The reason: the growing consumption of an increasingly-affluent population for meat, milk and beer, which puts added demand on cereals.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that Asia is the fastest growing market for agricultural imports, accounting already for 65 per cent of the total world share.

At the same time, agriculture’s share of the gross domestic product (GDP) of East Asian economies is falling sharply, resulting in an increasing dependence on food imports.

Bangkok-based FAO Director for the Asia-Pacific region, Obaidullah Khan, says the region has been seeing the steepest rise in prices of cereals in the past year and he predicts further increases.

“Prices of staples are up to 40 per cent above the years of food shortages of 1973, this is a threat to food security,” says Khan.

In a report prepared for the World Food Summit in Rome in November called ‘Towards a New Green Revolution’, the FAO says that Asia has 500 million hungry people — nearly double the number of all other regions combined. Most are in South Asia, where two out of every three children are underfed.

The last time mass starvation threatened Asia 25 years ago, researchers came up with the miracle ‘Green Revolution’ rice that staved off famine.

This time, technological fixes to boost grain production are at least 10 years away. In addition, indiscriminate use of agro- chemicals for high yields of Green Revolution seeds have destroyed soils and urban sprawl is eating up farmlands.

On top of this, trade liberalisation and the indiscriminate entry of foreign cereal producers is going to further reduce the capacity of Asia’s poorer nations to feed themselves, critics say.

At a meeting in the Thai capital before the Food Summit, Asian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) urged a freeze on further liberalisation of agricultural trade until the impact of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) accord was studied and its impact on subsistence farmers carefully explored.

The Geneva-based WTO is the successor organisation of GATT.

“It might be important to put a food security clause in the World Trade Organisation,” says Toni Quizon of the manila-based Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform. “The right of countries to protect their food security at the national level must be protected.”

Asian activists say that watered-down resolutions agreed at the Food Summit undermined FAO’s own efforts in the Asia-Pacific region to take a progressive stance on food security and the effect of market liberalisation.

They have welcomed FAO’s efforts to consult farmers’ organisations and community groups in the region and urge FAO to “listen to the rising and increasingly organised voices of the poor and the marginalised”.

In its report, FAO underlines the urgent need for a second ‘Green Revolution’ in Asia. But instead of a technological fix that would benefit only rich farmers, this time the organisation says the solution is in making agriculture sustainable, and restoring the ability of small farmers to feed themselves.

Says Khan: “The effects of the first Green Revolution are still being felt today. But that experience is unlikely to serve as a pattern for the next one. The Second Green Revolution must focus on the poorer farmer, herder of fisherfolk.”

But the danger is that poorer farmers, already marginalised by technology-driven, industrial agriculture and hurt by government neglect, will be further undercut because of the threat of cheap imports allowed under WTO rules.

Farmers will be forced to give up their livelihoods, migrate to cities in search of jobs. The process could be irreversible, and permanently affect agricultural production.

And as Susan George of the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute said at a meeting in Manila earlier this year: “You can make a worker out of a peasant, but you cannot make a peasant out of a worker.”

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