Profits over people

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

How the World Food Summit in Rome last fortnight buried food rights, and clearly laid the contours of the future the powerful of the world are designing.

THE "World Food Summit: 5 years later" which concluded in Rome on June 13 was supposed to address the most important human rights violation of our time - the denial of the right to food to millions. Many of the delegates found football more important than hunger. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian leader, wrapped up the so-called "Summit" two hours ahead of schedule so that everyone could watch the World Cup of football. Nero fiddled while Rome burnt. Leaders watch football while their people starve. In any case, while serious commitments were being made, no serious analysis was attempted to address the growing crisis of hunger and malnutrition.

While the Summit was a total failure in addressing the hunger issue, it did become a launching pad for the biotechnology industry. The hunger for food was neglected. The hunger for profit was fully attended to. It was used to put the stamp of approval on genetically engineered seeds and crops which have been at the centre of controversy over the past decade.

As is becoming the trend, the World Food Summit was not negotiated. A text was ready before the leaders arrived. The leaders came only came from the countries of the South. Rich country leaders were absent. The United States government was conspicuous by its influence. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, who used to be with Calgene, now a company under Monsanto, held a press conference to announce how biotechnology would save people and the rainforests. (A U.S. journalist who interviewed this writer commented that the current U.S. government is in fact a "Monsanto administration". Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to be president of Searle, which merged with Monsanto. And Attorney-General John Ashcroft had received campaign funds from Monsanto.)

While no financial commitment was made on the hunger front, the head of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced biotechnology aid of $100 million to Third World countries over the next ten years for transfer of biotechnology. With and tied to trade and commercial interests, it is possible that poor countries which have been resisting genetic engineering will now open their doors to it.

The Summit seemed to have moved from addressing the problem of hunger of the poor to hunger for profits and control of corporations. It conveyed the impression of being more a sale-show for the biotechnology industry than a serious gathering of leaders seeking to find collective ways and make collective commitments to address the biggest human rights disaster of our times - more than a billion people going hungry in a world with abundant food and wealth.

The Summit was to have been organised before the Doha Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). However, because of protests in Genoa at the time of the G-7 summit when the police killed a youth, the Italian government had made Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) postpone the Summit since it was worried about protests. A peaceful protest by more than 20,000 people did take place on June 8, an indication that for citizens food and agriculture is a major concern. In countries of the Third World it is a concern because most people of the South are peasants and farmers, because most people who are growing hungry are in rural areas and could be producing enough food for their needs had they not been displaced and had not their resources and assets been alienated, and had not their food sovereignty been destroyed by non-sustainable capital-intensive technologies and unfair terms of trade between rural and urban areas, between agriculture and industry, and between North and South.

Reform of the global agriculture system was the most important issue for debate and negotiation at the WTO Ministerial Meeting in Doha. The most significant failing of Rome was that it made no effort to contribute to reform of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture with people's food rights as the defining imperative for reform.

Starvation is the inevitable result of policies of globalisation which are transforming food from a basic need, to which everyone has a right, to a globally-traded commodity. Most hungry people are rural producers who are hungry either because their resources have been ecologically degraded or alienated, or because they are too deeply in debt to buy costly inputs for Green Revolution-style industrial agriculture. They cannot consume the food they grow. This is the story of Kalahandi and Kashipur in Orissa. People starve because of erosion of entitlements, not lack of food. And entitlements are being eroded by globalisation in four ways.

First, capital-intensive systems of agriculture rob peasants of incomes and push them into debt and penury. The epidemic of farmers' suicides is a reflection of this growing crisis of increasing costs of production.

Secondly, as markets get integrated globally and import restrictions (quantitative restrictions or QRs) are removed, the artificial prices set by the monopoly control of agribusiness and the $400 billion-worth subsidies in rich countries depress domestic prices, robbing farmers of markets and incomes.

The recently announced U.S. Farm Bill increases U.S. subsidies to $18 billion over the next few years. This will depress further the prices farmers receive worldwide, making agriculture non-viable for small and marginal producers. It also throws to the world the oft-quoted justification for globalisation and WTO rules - that it would create a level playing field and force rich countries to reduce subsidies. The WTO is clearly helpless in disciplining rich countries like the U.S. Its discipline seems to be imposed only on countries like India which has been forced to change its patent laws under the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) regime and to remove QRs for agricultural imports.

The third level at which food entitlements of the poor are eroded is by the shift from "food first to export first" policies. India's new agriculture policy as well as the last two Union Budgets made this shift evident. Export-oriented agriculture policies divert scarce land and water from meeting local food needs to providing for export markets thus creating hunger and conditions for famine for the most vulnerable and marginal communities. This is what happened during colonialism and is happening under the recolonisation of globalisation.

The inverse relation between increasing exports and declining food consumption locally and nationally has been exhibited under export-led strategies of World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). In Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Zaire, which account for 60 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, there has been a 33 per cent decline in cereal output per head and 20 per cent decline in overall food output per head in less than a decade. All the countries saw rising agricultural exports per head along with declining food output or food consumption per head.

Finally, hunger is a result of policies linked to structural adjustment and globalisation which promote sudden withdrawal of the state and reckless dependence on markets. The dismantling of the public distribution system (PDS) has destroyed India's food security.

The 1943 Bengal famine forced intervention by government to ensure the supply of food to people facing famine. A rationing system was introduced. The first Foodgrains Policy Committee appointed in 1943 recommended procurement of foodgrains from surplus areas, rationing for equitable distribution and statutory price control to check price rise.

The Foodgrains Policy Commission, appointed to draft a foodgrains policy for independent India, recommended the abolition of food controls, rationing and the necessity of imports to maintain central reserves. Between 1957-58 and 1966-67, the PDS was dominated by imports from the U.S. under the PL 480 scheme.

The creation of artificial profitability for the production of Green Revolution wheat and rice was based on the creation of centralised institutions for the control of farm economies. Two central bodies related to food production, procurement and distribution were established in 1965 on World Bank advice. One was the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which was responsible for procurement, import, distribution, storage and the sale of foodgrain. The other was the Agricultural Prices Commission (APC) which determined minimum support prices for foodgrains, and through it, controlled cropping patterns, land use and profitability. Through food price and procurement, the Central government now controlled the economics of food grain production and distribution. The profitability of foodgrain production in this centralised, subsidised and enclavised form could not be maintained over time. In the 1980s, subsidies became a drain on the government budget.

In 1991, the World Bank, which had earlier designed the centralised system, called for its dismantling through its SAPs. The Bank demanded the dismantling of the PDS, the removal of the Essential Commodities Act, the removal of price and inventory control and deregulation of agricultural trade. It recommended the corporatisation of agriculture and a shift from a state-centred to a corporate-centred food system.

RADICAL restructuring of the PDS and withdrawal of food subsidies was an important aspect of India's structural adjustment. The revamped PDS (RPDS) was supposed to target vulnerable regions better and reduce public expenditure. However, all that it did was to increase hunger while adding to government expenditure. In 1997, the RPDS was replaced by the Targeted PDS (TPDS). It provided 10 kg of wheat or rice a month to families below poverty line (BPL) at highly subsidised prices and withdrew all subsidies for families above poverty line (APL). As a result, food prices increased, off-take fell, and stocks grew.

The TPDS artificially divided the population into BPL and APL categories. Those who access food from fair price shops are those who cannot buy it from the market. The APL category has been defined as those earning above Rs.1,500 a month, which is barely enough to meet basic needs. Those in the APL category have also to bear 100 per cent of the procurement and distribution costs, which places foodgrains far above their reach. In fact, the government committee formulating the long-term grain policy has recommended that the price of grain for the APL category be slashed by 25 per cent.

There were major problems with the TPDS. First, the BPL/APL categories were arbitrary and the BPL beneficiaries who were to be targeted were artificially reduced. The whole exercise of targeting BPL families was exposed as a farce when 12 States informed the Supreme Court that they could not identify people in the BPL category. Instead of targeting the poor, the World Bank-driven policies made the poor and their food entitlements disappear.

Further, the quantum of allotment of 10 kg of wheat or rice for a family at best meets only 12 per cent of the nutritional requirement, forcing the poor to depend on high markets for 88 per cent of their requirements and consume less, thus reducing off-take from the PDS.

The decline in off-take is the main reason for the growing stocks. Fifty million tonnes of foodgrains are rotting while people cannot afford to buy food. Stocks of rice have increased from 13 million tonnes to 22 million tonnes, while wheat stocks have gone up from 872 million tonnes to 2,411 million tonnes. While the conditionalities set by global trade and financial institutions prevent the government from supporting the poor to have access to adequate and nutritious food, they promote the diversion of subsidies from people to corporations. While people have been forced to buy wheat and rice at Rs.11.30 a kg following the withdrawal of subsidies, corporations get wheat and rice at subsidised prices.

It is trading giants such as Pepsi and Cargill that have benefited from the withdrawal of food subsidies to the poor and redirection of subsidies for exports. Trade liberalisation is a recipe to starve the poor and feed the corporations.

WHILE the World Food Summit totally failed to address the crisis of hunger and the increase in hunger due to globalisation, or find effective solutions to the problem of starvation, movements and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) gathered at the Forum parallel to the Food Summit presented exciting experiences and research. The theme of the NGO Forum was "Food Sovereignty" and it had a broad-based participation of peasants, women, seed saver movements and ecological and organic movements.

Studies show that organic/ecological agriculture produces more food, while protecting livelihoods and the environment. At a session organised by Bread for the World at which this writer spoke, the results of a study of 89 projects worldwide showed that sustainable agriculture can lead to substantial increases in per hectare food production. The proportional yield increases are generally 50 per cent to 100 per cent for rainfed crops and 5 per cent to 10 per cent for irrigated crops.

At the same session, Greenpeace presented a study that showed that in Argentina, the country in the South with the highest acreage of genetically engineered crops, farm incomes had declined, chemical use had increased and yields of GM crops had decreased.

However, none of the studies which showed that neither GMOs nor chemicals are necessary to produce more food informed the official Summit. It blindly promoted biotechnology. The declaration states: "We call on the FAO, in conjunction with the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) and other international research institutes, to advance agricultural research and research into new technologies, including biotechnology... We are committed to study, share and facilitate the responsible use of biotechnology in addressing development needs."

At a major session on Women and Agriculture in the FAO which this writer was asked to address, links were made between the Food Summit in Rome and the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, organised 10 years after Rio. The challenge from Rome to Johannesburg is to make sustainable agriculture the cornerstone of food and agriculture policy. The evidence and practices are there to prove that the sustainable solutions are also the solutions that promote equity and justice. However, one can already predict that the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) will be another non-negotiated declaration promoting the interests of global corporations.

The trends are clear - a redefinition of globalisation as sustainable development and biotechnology as sustainable agriculture; the replacement of legally binding (Type I) agreements with voluntary partnerships between corporations and governments (Type II) agreements; and the relaunch of the biotechnology agenda through the new economic partnership for Africa (NEPAD).

One could ignore these global circuses. However, they redefine our rights and restructure governance to transform our democracies into corporate rule. The Food Summit buried food rights. The WSSD will try to bury people's right to resources.

However, the right to food and sustenance is a natural right. Governments can be blind to them. They cannot extinguish them. And people will find new ways to liberate their food systems from corporate control and liberate the poor from hunger. The Rome Summit has clearly laid the contours of the future the powerful are designing. However, history shows us that the future does not always unfold on the design of the powerful. No regime that rests on denying people their right to food lasts. The fall of the Roman Empire is a lesson from the past. The rise of movements like Tebhaga after the Great Bengal Famine is a more recent reminder from history. In spite of millions facing starvation, all that the World Food Summit could offer those who faced hunger and starvation was an "invitation" to FAO "to elaborate, in a period of two years, a set of voluntary guidelines to support members-states' efforts to achieve the progressive realisation of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security".

The legally binding obligations of states have been replaced by "voluntary guidelines". At a time when globalisation has more to do with whether people get food or die of hunger, instead of focussing on global trade issues and WTO rules, "national contexts" are all that is addressed.

It is clear that it is not the World Food Summit of June 2002 but the struggle of people for their food rights and food sovereignty which will determine the future.

Vandana Shiva is Executive Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi.

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