World leaders shun food summit

Posted: 11 June 2002

The failure of many world leaders to attend this year's UN food summit,in Rome (June 2002), was seen by many commentators to indicate a lack of political will to tackle the issues of hunger and global poverty.

Of the industrialised Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only Italy's Silvio Berlusconi (who chairs the summit) and Spain's Prime Minister José Maria Aznar turned up.

Poor attendance may be attributed to security reasons and busy schedules. Postponed from last November, the food summit was largely overshadowed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development which opened in Johannesburg in August.

The food summit aimed to revive interest in the target agreed in 1996 - to halve the number of the world's hungry from 800m to 400m. In order to achieve this, the FAO estimates that an extra $24bn must be spent annually on boosting agricultural research and rural infrastructure.

In the event, the meeting ended with a declaration renewing this global commitment which requires a rate of hunger reduction of more than 22 million per year.

The leaders urged developed countries that have not done so to make concrete efforts towards the target of 0.7 percent of gross national product as Overseas Development Assistance to developing countries. (Only Denmark,Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden meet this target. In 2001, the US ODA - though the world's biggest - was equivalent to only 0.11 per cent of GDP.)

In their Declaration, the leaders "stress" the need "to further promote sustainable forest and fisheries management, including sustainable use and conservation of aquatic living resources, in view of the contribution of those sectors to food security and poverty eradication."

More controversially, the leaders underlined their support for the advancement of biotechnology, over the objections of critics who warn that genetically engineered crops will spread uncontrollably, making organic farming impossible, and fears of allergic and other public health reactions to transgenic foods.

"The introduction of tried and tested new technologies including biotechnology should be accomplished in a safe manner and adapted to local conditions to help improve agricultural productivity in developing countries. We are committed to study, share and facilitate the responsible use of biotechnology in addressing development needs," the leaders declared.

In a parallel gathering, the leaders of grassroots organizations from around the world engaged in their own five day debate in Rome, the Forum for Food Sovereignty. "We have groups from 92 countries here, but we have consulted other organizations at meetings held around the world over the last year or two. We are proud of our reach," said Sergio Marelli, chairman of the Italian committee of nongovernmental and citizens organizations hosting the event.

"We want the governments to realize that what they have done is absolutely not enough to reduce by half the number of hungry by 2015," said Marelli.

The NGOs support agro-ecological models of agriculture instead of industrial models. They declared the importance of food sovereignty, or the right of people and countries to determine their own agricultural and food policies.

Source: FAO,Financial Times and others.