June 3, 2008 / 10:19 AM / in 9 years

Food summit draws up plan to "eliminate hunger"

ROME (Reuters) - A U.N. global food crisis summit will draw up an emergency plan on Wednesday to mobilize aid, reduce trade barriers and invest in farming in poor countries to stop the spread of hunger threatening nearly one billion people.

<p>Residents purchase local rice sold by the government at subsidized prices outside the National Food Authority (NFA) warehouse in Quezon city, Metro Manila June 3, 2008. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco</p>

“We commit to eliminating hunger and to securing food for all, today and tomorrow,” read a draft declaration from the three-day Rome summit, whose opening session on Tuesday was attended by leaders of about 44 nations.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization called the emergency meeting amid soaring commodity prices that threaten to add as many as 100 million more people to the 850 million already going hungry and destabilize governments.

The cost of major food commodities has doubled over the last couple of years, with rice, corn and wheat at record highs. The OECD sees prices retreating from their current peaks but still up to 50 percent higher in the coming decade.

After lofty speeches from leaders on Tuesday, many of whom blamed trade barriers and biofuels, championed by Brazil and the United States, for driving up prices, delegates will hold talks on Wednesday to prepare a declaration for release on Thursday.

The draft declaration promised to “stimulate food production and to increase investment in agriculture, to address obstacles to food access and to use the planet’s resources sustainably for present and future generations.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called hunger “degrading” and said the cost of increasing supply by 50 percent by 2030 to meet rising demand would be $15-20 billion a year, will receive a petition from on-line rights group Avaaz.org.

“We call on you to take immediate action to address the world food crisis by mobilizing emergency funding to prevent starvation, removing perverse incentives to turn food into biofuels and managing financial speculation,” the petition says.

<p>A man lying in a hammock reads the bible while waiting for customers at his watermelon stall in the Managua market June 3, 2008. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas</p>

U.S. DEFENSIVE

Speeches from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, both of whose attendance sparked protests by FAO delegates or lobby groups, provided fiery rhetoric for the first day of the meeting.

But while the United States dismissed both of them, it found itself on the defensive regarding biofuels, along with Brazil which is the world’s largest producer of sugar-cane ethanol.

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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafter bristled at the criticism, telling a news conference: “I don’t think the United States gets enough credit at all for providing over one half of all the food aid ... ”

There was wider consensus on the need to reduce trade barriers and scrap export bans imposed by some countries in an attempt to safeguard domestic food supply during the crisis.

Aid agencies blame some Asian nations’ export restrictions on rice, for example, for driving up prices which led to riots as far abroad as Haiti in April, toppling the government.

The Rome summit will set the tone on food aid and subsidies for the Group of Eight summit in Japan in July and what is hoped to be the concluding stages of the stalled Doha talks under the World Trade Organization aimed at reducing trade distortions.

WTO chief Pascal Lamy said a Doha deal “would reduce the trade-distorting subsidies that have stymied the developing world’s production capacity.” Of the 22 countries most affected by the food crisis, “some are amongst the world’s least trade integrated economies in agriculture,” he said.

Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the main cause of food inflation was “tolerable protectionism” by rich countries and British International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander said rich countries “subsidized farming by $1 billion a day, costing poor farmers in developing countries an estimated $100 billion a year in lost income.”

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