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Economic Challenges to Sustainable Agriculture

The current global economic framework poses challenges to agriculture, which need to be resolved if sustainable agriculture is to be taken seriously. Pressing concerns include the inequities caused by agricultural subsidies in the North that lead to cheaper imports threatening the viability of small farms in developing countries, the enforced liberalization of agricultural imports in the South via the international financial institutions, lack of access to land and the declining investment in agriculture. These and other issues related to the eradication of hunger were debated at the recent Civil Society Development Forum.

The article below is reproduced with the permission of South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6284, 3 July 2007.

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Africa: Food for 12 billion - so why did 854 million go without?

Geneva, 30 Jun (IPS/Christi van der Westhuizen) -- "As you are suffering from over-consumption, I am suffering from under-consumption. We need to strike a balance," said Mary Wahu Kaara from the Kenya Debt Relief Network with reference to the North and the South.

Her words were echoed by Hilkka Pietila, honorary president of the World Federation of United Nations Associations: "We are wasting food in the North. We are eating too much, burning grain as fuel, and growing grain to feed pigs to slaughter for ham."

Their contributions were part of a heated debate over the past three days about the eradication of hunger, this at the Civil Society Development Forum.

The three-day meeting was hosted by the Conference of Non-governmental Organisations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CONGO) and the United Nations Millennium Campaign. It ended Saturday.

Jean Ziegler, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, alerted the more than 500 delegates that while 854 million people went without food in the world last year, enough food was produced to feed 12 billion people. "This is why a child that dies from famine is murder," Ziegler said.

Food is being over-produced in industrialised countries where some $349 billion have been spent on agricultural subsidies for a minority of people. Only 2.5% of the French and 4.9% of the Swiss population are farmers, said Ziegler.

"You can go to the Dakar market (in Senegal) and find Spanish, French, German and Italian fruit and vegetables at half or one-third of the local prices. The African farmers work 15 hours a day but they cannot compete with subsidies. This is systematically destroying Africa's agriculture," he pointed out.

"Nothing is being done about the dumping policy. The Third World is feeding us (Europeans). That is what is keeping this system in place."

Ziegler called the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the "mercenary organisation of the financial oligarchies that dominate the world".

He gave the following example to justify his comment: Niger, the second poorest country in the world, had a national veterinary office which provided free vaccinations and other services for the 22 million head of cattle in the country.

The IMF insisted on the privatisation of the service and threatened to withdraw its funding, something Niger's government fought without success. Since privatisation, herds have been destroyed because people could not pay for vaccinations. "The IMF has destroyed the way of life of tens of thousands of families," Ziegler said.

According to him, the argument of those in favour of market-based policies is that any state intervention in the market is a perversion. If famine was to be ended, for instance, it would have to be through increased market-based production. However, the legal right to food is the only weapon against the daily massacre of people by famine, Ziegler concluded.

Martin Khor, director of the non-governmental organisation Third World Network, echoed these sentiments, saying that he disagreed with the World Bank on the issue of cheap poultry from Europe being dumped in Ghana and destroying the local chicken market.

"I would say [that] the government has the right to put up protective tariffs to save its chicken industry. But the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are urging developing states to drop their tariffs as close to zero percent as possible while rich countries continue with their agricultural subsidies," Khor added.

"The IMF told Ghana [that] they cannot push up tariffs. If they do it, the IMF will withdraw its loan from Ghana."

A similar situation exists in Senegal, according to Demba Moussa Dembele, director of the Forum for African Alternatives, which is based in that country. European chickens had "invaded" Senegal, causing local farmers to lose 70% of market share.

Similarly, an agreement with the European Union on fisheries had seen Senegal's fishing waters depleted of fish. "Now, young migrants follow the fish to Spain in small fishing vessels," Dembele said.

The cotton sector has also suffered. African farmers have been put out of business by subsidies to US cotton farmers.

"The Group of Eight says [that] they want to help Africa. We do not need help. We need to be allowed to live off our own resources and what we produce. We need to eliminate policies that go against this right and we need to claim food sovereignty," Dembele argued.

Nikhil Seth, director of support and coordination at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), said that a contradiction has emerged when looking at the first Millennium Development Goal, which focuses on halving hunger and poverty by 2015.

While the number of poor people has dropped below one billion, increasing numbers of people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

He places the blame squarely on the tariff barriers and agricultural subsidies of rich countries. Land holdings are becoming fragmented and no productivity gains have been seen in poor states.

Food security, agricultural development and the role of trade and aid are interlinked issues, said Lakshmi Puri, director of the international trade division at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

The majority of the poor in developing countries are mostly subsistence farmers undermined by subsidised produce and dumped food. In the developing world, agriculture is frequently the engine of development. But aid to boost agriculture has been dropping since the 1980s, Puri said.

Richard Newfarmer, economic adviser on international trade at the World Bank, came to the organisation's defence, denying that the Bank had urged all countries to reduce tariffs to as close to zero percent as possible. In cases where the bank opted for lower tariffs, it was in order for the poor to get cheaper food.

He also insisted that when the Bank talks about property rights, it is referring not to those of big corporations, but to the property rights of the poor. If farmers are given ownership of land, they can invest money in that land, he added.

However, Colm O. Cuanachain, international campaigns director at ActionAid, pointed out that while 80% of food is produced by women, only 10% of land is owned by women. This is caused by World Bank policies which undermine the ability of poor people to own and work the land, he said. Governments are not addressing this problem through their policies.

The result is that the income gap between farmers and food companies has grown tremendously and is currently at $100 billion, he said. The top 30 companies control one-third of the global grocery market.

Similarly, ActionAid's Nancy Kachingwe said that as more arable land is being used for cash crops in Africa, more women lose access to land - which has a direct effect on nutrition in the household.

As a solution, Pietila proposed that agriculture be removed from the ambit of the World Trade Organisation because people have a right to food; food is not a commodity.

The UN agencies dealing with food and agriculture, such as the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, have to be welded into one organisation that should also take responsibility for trade in food products, she said.

Seth also said that investment is needed in agriculture, specifically for basic economic infrastructure, seed, water and equipment. +

 


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