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Existing trade agreements undermining poor nations

Food production, overall, has risen in the past few decades. But the rate of increase is levelling off and growing the extra food that is needed over the next few decades will be a severe challenge.

This is because there is little additional land and water available, says a report by the Panos Institute.

There is increasing consensus that most hungry people are hungry because of poverty, not because too little food has been produced.

In 1996, around 840 million people - or nearly one in seven of the world's population - were estimated to lack access to the food they need for adequate and regular nourishment.

This constituted 18 percent of the population in the Third World and 34 percent of the population in Africa.

That year, at the World Food Summit, 186 governments pledged to reduce by half the number of undernourished people in the world by 2015.

As things stand today, the promise is far from being met.

Governments gather from across the globe for a five-year review of progress, only to realise that a lot more remains to be done. The number of hungry people is falling by about eight million a year, but this is less than half the rate needed - 20 million a year.

Experts say that unless extra efforts are made to accelerate progress, the target will not be achieved before 2030.

In other words, 15 years late.

Food production has increased overall. But this has not happened in many of the places where the majority of hungry poor people live. One solution is to increase the food production and income of the poor themselves.

But many representatives of the Third World countries and the rural poor question whether further global trade liberalisation will help or hinder countries' efforts to do this.

Peasant farmers' organisations from South-East Asia, meeting in Bangkok in August 2001 to prepare a statement for the World Food Summit, pronounced: "We realise that the common problems that we have are spawned by neo-liberal globalisation, which further worsens global hunger.

"It has devastated the livelihoods of millions of peasants, and women peasants, as a result of policies most particularly of agricultural trade and financial liberalisation, de-regulation and privatisation."

A report launched by the Panos Institute examines why there are still nearly 800 million people in the world suffering from chronic hunger. It makes the case that existing trade agreements may be undermining the poorest countries' efforts to boost rural development and reduce poverty and hunger.

The report, Food for All: Can Hunger Be Halved? - which is available on the internet at - looks at the barriers to providing enough food for each person in the world.

The report asks whether trade liberalisation is helping or hindering the world in feeding its people.

"Even the most enthusiastic proponents of free trade now acknowledge that liberalisation often increases poverty for the poor and undermines the possibility of sustainable development," says the author of the report, John Madeley.

Free-trade supporters still hold that liberalisation stimulates economic growth and raises standards overall.

But they recognise that it is increasing the gap between rich and poor. The economic case for trade liberalisation is that it leads to efficient allocation of resources, with food being produced at the lowest cost.

But several studies have shown that consumers gain from cheap imported food only if they first have the money to buy it.

For local food producers, cheap imports compete with and undermine their own production.

This drives many of them into poverty. In the words of a Sri Lankan activist, free trade is like "putting the rabbit and tiger in the same cage".

Further liberalisation - of trade in general and of trade in agricultural products in particular - was on the agenda of recent ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Many developing countries fear that further liberalisation will further disadvantage them in the world economy.

They are not encouraged by the fact that the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture, intended to reduce state intervention in agricultural trade and prices, has so far not succeeded in reducing subsidies paid to farmers in most rich countries. Instead, they argue, it has tipped the balance of world trade further against Third World countries.

"Our farmers were never told what the WTO is, and don't see any benefit at all," says Emma Candawa, representative of the 50 000-strong Union of Smallholder Farmers of Malawi.

Candawa adds:

"On the contrary, export subsidies are subsidising farmers in Europe who are exporting their foodstuffs to Malawi.

"The food from Europe is very cheap and puts us in a very bad situation. Our farmers are worse off, much worse off than before. Either the WTO changes or it should get out of our area."

Many developing countries will not discuss further liberalisation measures until they are satisfied that real steps are being taken to rectify the imbalances they feel are built into trade agreements.

The eradication of hunger, they say, has not been given the priority it deserves. - Third World Network Features.

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