Food summit trying to hammer out stand on combating hunger

June 5th, 2008 - 9:56 pm ICT by IANS  

Rome, June 5 (DPA) Delegates from some 50 nations attending a food summit in Rome were trying Thursday to hammer out a common agreement on how to fight world hunger, which has been exacerbated by the highest food prices in 30 years. The three-day High-Level Conference on World Food Security was scheduled to end Thursday with an afternoon news conference by Jacques Diouf, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which hosted the summit.

Dozens of heads of state and government, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s top officials, major private institutions including the Gates and Rockerfeller foundations, and scores of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have attended the summit.

This “unprecedented response” indicates a “realization that hunger is on the march and this is unacceptable,” Josette Sheeran, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said.

“A child dies of hunger every six seconds,” Sheeran said, underlining that people in developing nations have been hit hardest by the hike in food prices which have recorded a 10-percent increase each month since June 2007.

But while there is consensus on the scale of the food crisis and the need to find solutions, including multibillion-dollar aid pledges, delegates differed on what strategies to adopt.

Disagreement remains over what role biofuels play in pushing up prices and diminishing food supplies, with countries like Brazil and the United States staunchly defending their production of ethanol as an alternative fuel.

According to Sheeran, once petroleum prices rise above the $80-dollar a barrel mark, it becomes cost-effective for people to take to biofuels.

In Ghana, for example, the food crop cassava is being increasingly used for biofuel to counter the surges in diesel and fertilizer prices, Sheeran said.

Given the contentious nature of the biofuel issue, observers believe the final summit declaration will adopt compromise language to win the consensus of participants.

A draft copy of the declaration obtained by DPA says that “in-depth studies are necessary to ensure that production and use of biofuels is sustainable” and the “desirability of exchanging experiences on biofuels technologies norms and regulations.”

Another contentious issue is the role of tariffs and other trade barriers which are seen to spur price increases while also limiting availability of food on the world markets.

Nations like Brazil, Vietnam, India, Egypt and China have all imposed food-export restrictions, a situation criticized by World Bank President Robert Zoellick.

“We need an international call to remove export bans and restrictions,” he said. “These controls encourage hoarding, drive up prices and hurt the poorest people around the world who are struggling to feed themselves,” he said in Rome.

Poorer nations say that if they are expected to open up their markets, then protectionist measures on agricultural products should be lifted in developed parts of the world like the European Union.

The draft declaration speaks of the need to ensure that “overall trade policies are conducive to fostering food security for all,” and to “minimize the use of restrictive measures that could increase volatility of market prices.”

By the end of the summit’s second day, Wednesday, UN officials announced almost $3 billion of new aid has been pledged to counter the food crisis.

This included $1.2 billion announced by the WFP and $1.5 billion pledged by the Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank for agriculture in the poorest countries.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested that some $20 billion a year was needed to tackle hunger, which affects more than 850 million people, and that world food production needs to be doubled by 2030.

“We simply cannot fail,” Ban said

FAO has listed 22 countries that are particularly vulnerable owing to a combination of high levels of chronic hunger - defined as more than 30 percent undernourishment - and being net importers of both food and fuel.

Countries such as Eritrea, Niger, Comoros, Haiti and Liberia are particularly affected.

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