Ref. :  000034993
Date :  2012-03-21
Language :  English
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Truths and lies about Food Safety

Since 2008, reflecting the increased hunger caused by sudden increases in food prices, there is an international controversy over food safety. More realistic would be to talk about food sovereignty, but the sign of transnational food distribution does not let that mention that term institutional level.
Recently Raj Patel published a dramatic book titled "Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System”. Patel starts by noting that "Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight.” Quite a symptom.

Between the UN and WTO

The latest controversy comes from November 2011 with a report by the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter. The document identifies four points that the Agreement on Agriculture of the WTO and the current Doha Round negotiations should be made compatible with the human right to adequate food.

The principles suggested by the Schutter report are: a) ensuring that the future criteria to allow aid (those called Green Box) do not impede the development of policies and programs to support food security, b) avoiding to define the establishment and management of food reserves as trade-distorting measures; c) adapting the provisions of the Agreement on Agriculture and other WTO agreements to accept the creation of reserves at national, regional and international level; d) allowing marketing boards and supply management schemes to be established.

Schutter explained that "the intertwining of food, energy and finance, changing global supply and demand dynamics and greater consolidation [concentration, n.of a.] in the agri-food sector are key drivers of today’s high food prices” . He adds that these conditions did not exist in 1980 and 1990 when it created the current system of agricultural trade. The goal now is to promote national food systems. Schutter notes that agricultural policy and food security are inseparable in most developing countries.

To achieve this goal he recommends several measures. First, to invest in agriculture and support small farmers in developing countries, which are about 500 million and with their families account for 2 billion people; it is a measure limited by WTO rules. Second, to improve and protect the income of both rural and urban poor; it is idem. Third, to establish and manage food reserves; it is idem. Fourth, to avoid dependence on international trade to ensure food; it is a big idem. Wow! Especially that last recommendation drew the ire of WTO’s Director, M. Pascal Lamy.

On 14 December, Mr. Pascal Lamy replied "Governments have the sovereign right to pursue policies for food security within their international obligations" and he then refers to the Agreement on Agriculture; then Governments are not sovereign... It is typical of high international officials that serve special interests to include in their discourse the opposite as proof of their claims.

Director Lamy thundered over that: "I fundamentally disagree with your assertion that countries need to limit reliance on international trade to achieve food security objectives. On the contrary, there is agreement among most UN-led experts that international trade is part of the package of solutions to achieve food security”.

Lamy added that “The Inter-agency report for the G-20 stated, for example, that “trade is an essential component of any food security strategy” and that “Policies that distort production and trade in agricultural commodities potentially impede the achievement of long run food security”. Another example of what Orwell called "double talk". It is true, that distortions in production and trade prevent food safety, but the biggest distortion is caused by production and export subsidies from the U.S. and the European Union and eminent members of the G-20. A detail that Lamy overlooks, but that ruin farmers in developing countries and that are, within some legalistic rhetoric, allowable subsidies at the WTO.

Lamy attributed the price crisis to: "Highly trade distorting support, the use of export subsidies, high levels of protection, and unpredictable trade measures restricting imports or exports were among the causes of the price spikes in 2008 and 2010”. Those sources of distortion have always been there, what is remarkable is that he does not mention speculation on futures and cartelized price fixing. To our knowledge, the distortion caused by the supports and export subsidies do not raise prices, but rather lower to dumping levels.

His most insidious comment is about export restrictions, which serve to ensure national needs on food and to avoid speculation. Lamy said: “I am surprised by the quasi-absence of reference in your report to rules applicable to export prohibitions and restrictions on food products. This issue is complex and controversial, but again there is a wide consensus that those measures, and the architecture of multilateral trade rules applying to them, have some significant influence on food security.” It is curious that since the last WTO Ministerial Conference, Lamy and the people around him speak of "broad consensus". Consensus means that no one objects, if anyone objects then there is no consensus; consensus is neither broad or slim, it does exist or there is none. And there is a well known disagreement on eliminating export restrictions or taxes, the most notorious objectors being Argentina, Bolivia, China, India, South Africa, Russia and Fiji, which would make a "broad disagreement" because they harbor the world's largest vulnerable agricultural population.

We quote the remarkable response on trade of Schutter to Lamy: "This may look like food security on paper, but it is an approach that has failed spectacularly. The reality on the ground is that vulnerable populations are consigned to endemic hunger and poverty”. Then he adds: “In the long term, poor net-food-importing countries will not be helped by being fed. They will be helped by being able to feed themselves. This is the consensus of the post-global food price crisis world that even the G20 has recognized. It is disappointing that the WTO continues to fight the battles of the past.”

History for the Future

Raj Patel’s book also speaks of "the rot in the core of the modern food system." The book chronicles a history that political leaders and trade diplomats should read. It shows how the pattern of power abuse and inequality expanded and has been starving people since the genocide in Ireland until now, through Africa or India and the United States regardless of democratic claims and now back in Europe due to public bankruptcy to save the banks.

The book tells what happens when food and land are seen only as commodities, by a global system driven by greed and with the largest profit as its only target. The most perverse story recalled is that of Ireland, between 1845 and 1850, under the British occupation. The genocide committed (see then shows how nefarious can be the removal of food export controls.

The plague of potato blight, "Phytophthora infestans", spread from America to Europe in 1844. It came first to England and then to Ireland in 1845, but it did not cause famine elsewhere. The plague only affected the potato and not the other Irish crops, in a country that always had a large agricultural production. Ireland starved not for want of potatoes, but for lack of food. British occupation soldiers and British police took Irish food at gunpoint to comply with the export business of their employers.

Thomas Gallagher points out in "Paddy's Lament" that during the first famine winter, 1846-47, some 400,000 Irish peasants starved, but 17 million pounds were exported in grain, cattle, hogs, flour , eggs and poultry, food that would have prevented those deaths. During the famine, says Gallagher, there was abundant food produced in Ireland, but it was exported abroad. Every day 40 to 70 shipments left harbor, removed by force by 12,000 British police and some 100 thousand British troops, reinforced by the British militia, battleships, special ships and Coast Guard, which prevented fishermen from asking passing ships for food. The description matches that of English authoress Cecil Woodham-Smith in "The Great Hunger".

G.B. Shaw wrote, fifty years later, in his play "Man and Superman": Malone: "My father died of starvation in Ireland in the Black '47. Perhaps you've heard of it?" Violet: "The famine?" Malone: (with burning passion). "No, the starvation, when a country is full of food and exporting it, there can be no famine.”

A well known Irishwoman, Jane Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde, wrote very sad verses in "The Famine year", here's an excerpt:

Weary men, what reap ye? "Golden corn for the Stranger."
What sow ye? "Human corpses that await for the Avenger."
Fainting forms, all hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing?
"Stately ships to bear our food away amid the stranger's scoffing."
There's a proud array of soldiers what do they round your door?
"They guard our masters' granaries from the thin hands of the poor."
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? "Would to God that we were dead"
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread!"

The population of Ireland, according to the 1841 census, was 9,897,449, so 11million in 1845 is a fair guess. According to the 1851 census, the population had fallen to 6,552,385; one million emigrated and often perished, the missing rest starved and is buried in mass graves.

There is something here to remember when the English or their ideological descendants talk about letting trade, the market and multinational corporations take care of feeding us.

Umberto Mazzei has a PhD in political science from the University of Florence. He has taught international economics at universities in Colombia, Venezuela and Guatemala. He is Director of the Institute of International Economic Relations in Geneva.

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