Poverty In the Midst of Plenty
World Food Summit 2002:
The hungry will have to wait
Here is an analysis of the World Food Summit held earlier this year. Our thanks to the Share International Media Service for making this available.
by Dr. Devinder Sharma
I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much for you, apply the following test:
“Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj [self-reliance] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.”
-- The Talisman of Mahatma Gandhi
They came, they spoke and they lost. The heads of state, who had assembled for the recently concluded World Food Summit ‘five years later’ at Rome, spoke eloquently about the scandalous ‘scourge’ of prevailing hunger, and yet provided only a diet of verbosity to the millions of hungry and malnourished. They spoke about the urgent need to remove global hunger and yet could not look beyond depressing figures. They came to draw global attention to mankind’s greatest shame but in reality came to promote biotechnology under the guise of hunger and food insecurity.
After all, in an era of market economy, where contesting the next election is the biggest challenge that confronts the political leaders all over the world, the heads of state did not think even once before unabashedly promoting the commercial interests of the corporations. The hungry will, therefore, have to wait. And wait endlessly for another Mahatma Gandhi to emerge on the horizon and to single-handedly lead the march against hunger, poverty and inequality.
(For our excellent biography of Gandhi, click here.)
If only the heads of state, who came for the growing ritual of meaningless Summits, had read Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman, there would have been hope and optimism emerging from the dark clouds of hunger and malnutrition.
For days before the heads of state started arriving, the drafting committees were locked in the debate over defining a code of conduct for the ‘right to food’. As if the ‘right to food’ is a magical stick that makes the Supermen of the political hierarchy deliver food to the hungry and the desperately needy, the G77 countries, the European Union and the United States fought relentlessly for and against it. Finally, the world’s only superpower succeeded in imposing its will on the rest of the world. The code of conduct was replaced by the word ‘guidelines’, as the US had initially wanted, and the final draft was ready for the signatures of the heads of state.
The right-based approach to hunger and malnutrition was expected to challenge unwilling governments to change policies. At the same time, it aimed at giving the victims of violations the means to seek redress and claim “good governance” by giving them the power of political and economic participation. In addition, a code of conduct was also expected to allow civil society and the national judiciary to guarantee the right to food. Laudable intentions, indeed. But what the promoters of the right-based approach probably did not realize is that the ‘right to food’ in a majority of the developing countries where hunger persists is already enshrined in their Constitutions. The code of conduct becomes meaningless when governments all over the world, and that includes the United States, are more interested in pushing the commercial interests of an industry and the corporate empire than addressing the problems of hunger and inequality.
Take the case of India, where the shameful paradox of plenty fails to move the government to wage war against hunger and malnutrition. And that too in a country which alone has a third of the world’s estimated 800 million hungry, and tragically over 65 million tonnes of food stocks rotting in the open. The country’s Supreme Court had last year directed the government to “devise a scheme where no person goes hungry when the granaries are full and lots being wasted due to non-availability of storage space”. At the same time, the Court had asked the government to open the public distribution shops in the worst-affected states so as to make available the food to the poor and hungry.
The Supreme Court’s directive came in 2001. A year later, all that the government has done is to play around with figures and statistics in an effort to provide a neat cover for its inaction. Another document, in the form of a code of conduct for the ‘right to food’, is certainly not going to move the government into action. Nor will it provide the much-needed weapon for the victims of apathy and neglect to fight for their rights. If only the poor and hungry had a voice, no government could have dared to ignore their plight. The monumental task, therefore, cannot be achieved by yet another carefully-worded document that comes from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). It requires an instrument more powerful than the lack of political will referred to by FAO Director General Jacques Diouf.
To say that “the main underlying reason for the persistence of hunger is due to the lack of a political will, and as a result of this the resources to fight hunger have not been mobilized to the extent required”, is to brush aside the real causes for persistent hunger and abject poverty. What Mr Diouf needs to acknowledge is that it is because of the prevailing political will that hunger is multiplying. It is because the political will is in resonance with the forces that aim at exploiting the hungry and the poor, that the entire global system is directed towards extracting its “pound of flesh” from even the starving masses. Such a disgraceful system has its roots firmly embedded in the FAO and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Over the past few years, both the respected global institutions have deviated from their path of global good to global greed.
At the first World Food Summit in 1996, also held in Rome, Italy, the heads of state had pledged to achieve the objective to halve the number of hungry by the year 2015. This meant an annual reduction in the number of hungry by approximately 22 million. Even this has not been achieved, the FAO observed. And still, the 182 member countries, represented by some 81 heads of state and high-level delegations, once again reiterated the commitment to reduce half the world’s hunger, which in other words means pulling out 400 million people from the hunger trap, by 2015. Even if the FAO and the international community fails to set the hunger agenda into motion, over 122 million hungry would have perished in any case by then. Perhaps that is what the heads of state are hoping for as a face-saving grace!
It is here that global greed comes into focus. While the boring speeches continued in the main plenary, the United States was busy pushing its own commercial interests. The US secretary of agriculture, Ann Veneman, had made no secret of her intentions when she said: “Biotechnology has tremendous potential to develop products that can be more suited to areas of the world where there is persistent hunger,” adding: “there is no food safety issue whatsoever”. It was primarily for this reason that the US had all along wanted strong language in the final declaration in favour of genetically-modified food as the key to solving hunger and malnutrition.
The world’s food basket
No wonder the US announced a $US100 million programme to develop genetically-modified crops and products tailored "specifically" for the needs of the developing countries. Now, before you ponder over the real motive behind this benevolence, what emerges crystal clear is that having attained the unique status as the world’s only super-power, the US focus is now to become the world’s only food basket. The entire research and aid development programmes, actively backed by the World Bank, IMF and the World Trade Organization (WTO), are aimed at building the US into a food power — so that the rest of the world becomes completely dependent upon America for its food needs. This can be achieved by ensuring that, first, the trade rules are so framed that the benefits should mainly percolate to the American farm sector and, secondly, by gradual destruction of the capacity of the developing countries — the majority world — to go in for food self-sufficiency.
Biotechnology is the only tool that can usher in the great hunger divide — between the rich industrialized countries and the poor developing economies, between the heavily subsidized OECD agribusinesses and the subsistence farming of the developing world, and between the seed-rich countries of the North and the gene-rich nations of the South. The stage has been clearly set for a major confrontation on the food front. With the political leadership in the developing countries lured by hope and succumbing to arm-twisting and pressures, biotechnology is certainly set on a path to destroy livelihoods in the South. By the time the negative impact is felt, the damage would have been done.
Biotechnology only aims to force peasants and marginal farmers off their meagre land holdings. Biotechnology claims to seek to provide the hungry with a "choice." But what it forgets is that, given a choice, all that the hungry need is simple food. By refusing to address the immediate crisis on the hunger front, the Summit failed and failed miserably. Except for the decorative part of the final declaration, the Summit failed to spell out the initiatives on how to immediately tackle prevailing hunger and malnutrition, on how to ensure that the tragedy of Malawi and Zimbabwe, which are still deep in the quagmire of famine and starvation, is not repeated elsewhere. It failed by turning a blind eye to the plight of over 320 million hungry in India, who continue to stare with dry eyes at the mountains of food surpluses being eaten by rats and pests.
The onus does not only rest with the heads of state; the FAO and CGIAR are equally responsible for the food debacle. If only the FAO/CGIAR refuses to chant the biotechnology mantra, if only these two global farm research and development organizations refuse to conform to the research agenda of the western countries, and if only these institutions were to reiterate their commitment to the farming communities and sustainable farming practices in the developing countries, the onerous task of feeding the world without destroying the resource life-line could have been easily achieved. With good science now being replaced with ‘lobbyist science’ as advocated by the industry, the poor and hungry will have to wait as they do not add to the corporate profits.
If only the political leadership, the industry, agricultural scientists and civil society had followed Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman, the world would not have been a witness to mankind’s greatest shame — hunger, and in the midst of plenty. It is time the FAO/CGIAR adopt the Talisman as their directive principal, it is time the heads of state were to understand the meaning of the Talisman -- the world would then see the beginning of a bright future. There is no need to wait for another Mahatma; the need is to follow what the Mahatma said. And then there would be no need for another World Food Summit. We have had enough.
Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst based in New Delhi, India.
For additional perspectives, see Fred Foldvary on Genetically Modified Food
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