Disappointment at the World Food Summit

The World Food Summit has just ended in Rome, at which the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, lauded the declaration as "an important step towards the achievement of our common objective--a world free from hunger."

Sadly, the declaration itself is written in UN prose, a bloodless language created in committee and intended to be as bland as possible. Even the snappy summary, found in the press release, reads like it has been translated from English to Esperanto and back again by someone armed only with a dictionary of international management consultancy:

Renewed commitment to end hunger... Countries also agreed to work to reverse the decline in domestic and international funding for agriculture and promote new investment in the sector, to improve governance of global food issues in partnership with relevant stakeholders from the public and private sector, and to proactively face the challenges of climate change to food security... UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called the current food crisis "a wake-up call for tomorrow."

Luckily, I speak fluent UN and, for your edification, here's a handy guide to what it all means:

Farmers are almost never at the table. Farm workers and landless people are always absent.

Renewed commitment
"Renewed commitment" is a fairly straightforward way of saying "we're sticking to the promises we've made before, and we feel terrible that so many people are going hungry." The purpose of the summit was to create the political will to end hunger. Specifically, the goal was to change old policies and commit to spending the $44 billion a year required to end hunger by 2025. (To put this into some context, rich countries spend $1.3 trillion every year on weapons.) No such commitments were forthcoming. Instead, it's business as usual, and the same old promises for change. As Francisco Sarmento from ActionAid puts it, "unfortunately, the poor cannot eat promises."

Decline in international investment
Following a model of "economic liberalization" peddled by institutions like the World Bank in the 1980s, governments in poor countries were told to cut back their funding for agriculture. The "decline" in investment was imposed, as the Filipino activist and academic Walden Bello observed, with apparently benevolent motives:

U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Block put it at the start of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations in 1986, "the idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agricultural products, which are available, in most cases at lower cost."

So governments in poor countries stopped supporting their own small-scale farmers. Export-driven agriculture continued to get government cash--in Brazil, for instance, soy farmers received loans with negative interest rates, which explains why they are now the world's largest soy exporters. But, in the main, the poorest farmers were left to fend for themselves, even when it has long been known that investment in agriculture is one of the best ways to fight poverty. After all, the poorest and hungriest people invariably depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. The language about the "decline in international investment" is as close as the rich countries in the international community can come to a nostra culpa.

Relevant Stakeholders
One of the major problems with this food summit, as with food politics in general, is that the range of "stakeholders" who matter in making agriculture policy is small. Farmers are almost never at the table. Farm workers and landless people are always absent. The big agriculture corporations, the seed and pesticide companies, the grain traders, the food manufacturers are, by contrast, right in the center of the policy huddle. But rarely are the people who actually grow food to be found in the corridors of power.

Those farmers who do have the ear of government are invariably large-scale farmers, the ones with money who stand to profit from increased trade, not the poor, mostly women farmers who grow the majority of food eaten in developing countries and who are invariably overlooked in the making of international food policy.