Food is not another commodity

By David Cronin, IPS

BRUSSELS, Feb 25 (IPS) – Food should be treated differently to other economic goods during international trade talks, a new United Nations report has recommended.

Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, has queried the fundamental approach taken so far by the most powerful players in the Doha round of world trade talks that were launched in the Qatari capital in 2001. 

De Schutter spoke at a meeting in Brussels Feb. 25 hosted by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), an EU-financed organisation dealing with relations between Europe and nearly 80 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. 

Last year the European Union and the U.S. blamed India for the collapse of a meeting aimed at salvaging the talks. The Indian government sought to have safeguards inserted into an eventual agreement that would allow it to block agricultural imports in cases where the country’s farmers could not cope with competition. De Schutter argued that such safeguards are “crucial” because governments “must retain the freedom to take measures which insulate domestic markets from the volatility of prices on international markets.” 

In a report to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next month, the Belgian academic and political activist contends that while only 15 percent of all food produced is traded between different countries, prices fixed on international markets have a “disproportionately negative impact on the ability of small-scale farmers in the world to make a decent living.” 

Efforts to create a ‘level playing field’ between poor and wealthier countries are “meaningless”, he added. Productivity for farm labourers in the world’s poorest countries was less than 1 percent that of rich countries in 2006. Liberalising trade will not bridge that gap unless wages and price levels in poor countries are driven down, with an “inevitable” increase in hardship, he said. 

De Schutter’s report is being hailed as the first by an independent adviser to the UN to assess how the international trade system affects the right to food. In it, he warns against relying on foreign trade to bolster agriculture. As farming accounts for 70 percent of agriculture in countries where at least one-third of the population suffers from malnutrition, there is “no alternative” to supporting small-scale producers, he stated. 

One “major imbalance” identified is that while the international trading system seeks to place limits on the amount of government support that might be given to farmers, it does not limit the freedom of multinational companies to exert their influence on markets. Rules to address this imbalance are required, according to the report. 

The seminar Wednesday heard that vast tracts of arable land in Africa are being taken over by biofuel companies. Philip Kiriro, president of the Eastern African Farmers Federation, said that this is being done “in total disregard” for the concerns of local people. 

In Tanzania, he said, five regions are being targeted as part of a ‘land grabbing’ spree by foreign firms. British Sun Biofuels and the Swedish company Sekab are both seeking land in Mkuranga district, for example. 

Julian Quan, a researcher at the University of Greenwich in Britain, said that “in principle” small-scale farmers can be more efficient per hectare than more commercial farms. “But in practice because of the way global trade works, it is much easier for agribusiness to produce food at a scale that can meet the standards required for global markets,” he said. 

Lorenzo Cotula from the International Institute for Environment and Development in London noted that investment in sub-Saharan Africa has grown from less than 2 billion dollars in 1980 to almost 45 billion dollars in 2007. While extractive industries – particularly oil in Nigeria – account for the bulk of this increase, there has also been a surge of interest in biofuels. In Mozambique around two million hectares have been allocated to biofuels. 

According to Cotula, there is a widespread perception that land is “available” in Africa. Little data exists on who holds the titles for land, he added. 

Paul Mathieu, representative of the Food and Agricultural Organisation, noted that 73 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lives in rural areas and that 90 percent of agricultural production is undertaken by small-scale producers, who have an average holding of two hectares. Titles may not be available for 80 percent of the land concerned, he suggested, although de jure most of this land is in public hands. 

Greater foreign control of land often leads to forced evictions of peasants. “There is a need to secure land rights,” he added. “If land rights are secured, farmers are in a better position to negotiate and to avoid being expelled.” (END/2009)

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