Leaders Speak of Their Own Issues at a Conference Addressing Food Shortages
ROME — It was supposed to be an emergency conference on food shortages, climate change and energy. At the opening ceremony, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, noted that there were nearly one billion people short of food, and he called upon countries gathered here to act with “a sense of purpose and mission.”
A worker in Brazil cutting sugar cane, which the country uses to make ethanol. Competition between the United States and Brazil on ethanol was a point of contention at a conference on food.
But when the microphone was turned on for the powerful politicians who had flown in from all over the world, they spoke mostly about economic issues in their own countries and political priorities.
The United States’ agriculture secretary, Ed Schafer, talked about the benefits of biofuels and genetically modified crops. Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, spoke for half an hour about how Brazilian biofuels were superior to American ones. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, talked about the need to inject religion into food politics.
Everyone complained about other people’s protectionism — and defended their own.
Food experts on Wednesday, as well as many representatives from poor countries, wondered whether these divided forces could add up to any kind of solution to a global conundrum: how to feed one billion hungry people.
“What is the common denominator here? It is a food crisis,” said Denis Sassou-Nguesso, president of the Congo Republic. “That is the immediate problem for us.”
A “green revolution” about three decades ago brought vastly increased output to agriculture in much of the world, with improved agricultural techniques and fertilizers. But it did little to improve agriculture in some of the poorest parts of the world, particularly Africa, where harvests have remained stagnant under the pressures of neglect, political unrest and, now, climate change.
But in the industrialized world, farming became more of a regulated business. Farm entitlements became so entrenched that repeated efforts at reform, even in the face of soaring crop prices, have fallen flat, as evidenced by the inability to reach agreement on farming disputes at the World Trade Organization.
Against this backdrop, the food emergency has done little to prompt a consensus on a new approach that might make the world agricultural system more responsive to global food demand. There has been plenty of argument since the conference opened Tuesday over whether shortages and high prices were caused by the rush to biofuels, protective tariffs, the soaring price of oil, distorting subsidies or a market failure. But the issues appear too complex, and too heavily freighted with politics, to be addressed soon.
Robert B. Zoellick, president of the World Bank, said money was crucial to solving the short-term need for food aid to feed the world’s hungry. But he said preventing food crises would require more difficult policy changes.
In the meantime, many representatives from poorer countries expressed frustration at the tenor of the meeting. “We believe the problem is much more political than everything else,” said Walter Poveda Ricaurte, agriculture minister of Ecuador. “We have to differentiate between the countries who are really affected by the food crisis and those who are seeing it as an economic opportunity.”
He said that when food prices were low, in recent decades, Ecuador had stopped producing its own wheat, corn and soy — favoring cheap imports instead. Now that prices of these commodities have doubled in the past year, the country can no longer afford them, he said.
The conference has raised money for emergency relief. The Islamic Development Bank pledged $1.5 million on Wednesday. Mr. Ban estimated that $15 billion to $20 billion was needed to help resolve the food crisis.
But there was little sign that the economic and political disputes that often took center stage here resulted in new compromises.
Mr. da Silva attacked the “absurdly protectionist farm policies in rich countries,” a clear reference to the United States, which protects its own corn ethanol from competition with Brazilian ethanol, made from sugar cane.
American delegates attacked barriers to trade in poorer countries as well as in the European Union. China, which has not invested heavily in biofuels, said that “grain-based biofuels has driven up grain utilization and has potential to trigger more far reaching problems.”
Officials at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which sponsored the meeting, were sanguine about the results. “Sometimes I think the discussion is not focused on the need of countries and poor people,” said José Maria Sumpsi, assistant director general of the organization. “But you have to take into account that you are hearing the positions of the governments — defending their political views — which is different from whether they will fund immediate action.”
The conference was preparing to issue its concluding statement on Thursday, and delegates said the wording of the section on biofuels was a point of contention. The United States said only 2 to 3 percent of the global increase in food prices was attributable to competition from biofuels. But other countries put the figure far higher.
A draft copy of the resolution, obtained by The Associated Press, calls for urgent action to address the problems associated with higher food prices, for increased food production, fewer trade restrictions and increased research in agriculture. It also calls for more research on biofuels, sidestepping what has become the most contentious issue of the conference.
“I doubt there will be a positive agreement on biofuels” from the conference, said Mr. Schafer, the American agriculture secretary, though he indicated that some “acceptable” language would be in the meeting’s final document.
There has also been only limited discussion about developing a new kind of aid program that most experts agree is needed: one that invests in developing agriculture in poor countries and that spends less money in shipping food halfway around the world to feed hungry people.
“The era of food aid is over — there is no more sending food from America to Africa,” Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary general, said in an interview. Instead, he said, donors need to do more to improve agricultural practices in Africa and Asia, with donations of tools, fertilizers, seeds, silos and knowledge.
Officials from many major donor countries said they had been rethinking food aid policies — if only because food prices were now so high and transport was becoming increasingly costly.
Henrietta H. Fore, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said that transport costs were now soaking up 50 percent of its food aid money, and that the rising prices of commodities like oil were “eating away at our purchasing power.”
In the past, the program was heavily weighted toward sending food abroad, and it required that its aid be purchased in the United States and shipped on American vessels.
She said that in a bill now before Congress, 25 percent of food in a new $350 million aid package could be purchased overseas. But that has not been approved yet.