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Food crisis endangering millions

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BRUSSELS — The World Trade Organization (WTO) is in the last throes of its Doha Development Round negotiations, the European Union is currently undertaking a “health check” on its Common Agricultural Policy and the whole world is opening biofuel plants as a technological fix to curb CO2 emissions and cope with escalating oil prices. All three predicated on the experience of half a century of food mountains, wine lakes and the West dumping its surplus food on the rest to the detriment of subsistence farmers around the globe. Escalating food prices are increasingly leading to rioting on the streets and the world needs a fresh approach if last week’s cry for help from Africa is to be heeded.

This new crisis threatens to kill more in a day than have died from terrorism in the six years since 9/11. Even if politicians and governments haven’t noticed yet, the world’s poor see their children increasingly go hungry.

The impact will be particularly acute in Africa, where commodity prices have more than doubled in the last 12 months and continue to soar due to speculation, shortage and changing patterns of production. The root causes are a growing demand from East Asia and the supply consequences of the failure to invest in agriculture; climate change written in the language of floods, droughts and record-breaking temperatures; and the raising of crops for fuel instead of food.

Last week in Accra, the 12th United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) grappled with this and associated development issues.

Africa as a whole is at the epicenter of the inequalities of globalization. In the last 25 years Africa’s trade has halved. Unless something changes it will fall massively short of 2015’s Millennium Development Goals targets.

While Africa has 12 percent of the world’s population it has only 2.7 percent of the world’s exports and only 1.9 percent of its wealth.

There is increasing interest in Africa from the world’s emerging industrial and trading powers as a second wave of globalization re-shapes the global economy. In a new scramble for Africa, a fourth International Conference on African Development will be held in this month in Yokohama. In November 2006 there was a China-Africa Summit in Beijing and an African-Latin American Summit in Abuja, Nigeria.

In April, India invited 40 African heads of state to New Delhi. Former Jamaican PM Michael Manley once said, “If there is one thing worse than being exploited it’s not being exploited.” This is not a problem Africa seems to face in the future.

Despite the growing crisis, biofuels were strongly defended at UNCTAD’s opening session by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The success of ethanol production had created a million jobs. He offered to provide the technology to sub-Saharan Africa. As president, Lula has made seven trips to Africa and visited 19 African countries. While he’s committed to a Portuguese-speaking bloc with Mozambique and Angola, his vision goes beyond. One proposed biofuel investment in Ghana would produce 47 megawatts of energy from 27,000 hectares of land.

The whole issue pits heavily taxed gasoline — in the West at least — against massively subsidized agricultural commodities. It pits continued cheap fuel for 860 million cars and their owners against feeding three billion men, women and children living on less than 1 euro a day. Already in the last year at least 100 million people worldwide have been driven back into deepest poverty and deprivation. Even in the U.S., with 150 ethanol plants operating, and a further 50 on the way, food is being taken out of the mouths of the poor.

What is to be done? In the short term there must be a moratorium on all biofuel schemes that use food fit for human consumption. Second, U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, speaking at UNCTAD, announced that the World Food Program — that initially appealed for $365 million for 2008 — has now issued a revised emergency appeal of $775 million. The total committed is still short of the original demand. We must ensure the new appeal achieves its target.

In the longer term the West must end its massive trade-distorting agricultural subsidies that have undermined and made destitute indigenous farmers in Africa. Ghana’s poultry industry was destroyed by Europe.

Simultaneously, regional economic integration must be encouraged along with South-South trade. Seventy percent of the EU’s trade is internal, 50 percent of Asia’s, 30 percent of Latin America’s and less than 10 percent of Africa’s. As an example Sierra Leone faces more barriers to trading with its neighbors than with the EU.

Yet the interim Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) brutally negotiated by the EU with the African Caribbean Pacific group at the end of last year failed to properly deliver on either integration or development.

While EPAs were necessary to abide by WTO rules, the EU’s promised “added value” failed to materialize. With the interim agreements in their second phase we must get it right this time. As Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah encouraged, “Neither East nor West, but Forward.” The EU for the sake of the world’s poor — and its own continuing influence in the wake of the second globalization — must move forward on EPAs.

Glyn Ford MEP (Labour, Southwest England) attended UNCTAD on behalf of the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee.