Uniting against hunger?

Published: October 15, 2010

Jonathan Hepburn is agriculture programme officer and Christophe Bellmann is programmes director at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva

The world’s governments are meeting in Rome in the coming days to address the injustice of a world in which one in six people remain hungry. On October 16, World Food Day, they will declare themselves ‘United Against Hunger’, this year’s theme. Lost amidst solemn pledges will be the fact that key governments are anything but united over rules governing trade in agriculture which could help promote global food security.

International rules on farm trade prevent governments from ending extreme poverty. Throughout the post-war period, trade rules have allowed rich countries to subsidise their agricultural sectors heavily – paying producers to export surpluses to poor countries – and shield their own markets through import taxes. Farmers in poor countries are trapped in the export of a handful of unprocessed products, or, shut off from markets at home or abroad, have had to try to scratch a living from the soil — harvest failures or price fluctuations easily translate into hunger.

Agriculture in developing countries has stagnated or collapsed, with governments turning their backs on rural areas, private investors going elsewhere and growth in yields falling behind the speed of population increase. Climate change, demographic shifts, changing dietary patterns and energy scarcity are all expected to increase pressure on resources needed for agriculture in the years ahead.

The World Trade Organisation’s Doha round of trade negotiations could set in place better trading conditions. However, global leaders have been unable to agree to the draft accord that has emerged. The US is reluctant to make cuts in its farm subsidies. It wants more access for its agricultural exports in the ‘emerging’ markets of countries such as China and India — demands these countries have resisted. In the absence of clear US leadership, other countries have been loath to make further concessions in the talks.

The draft deal would cap trade-distorting farm support at historically low levels. It would eliminate developed country export subsidies by 2013 and would roughly halve the tariffs that the US and EU apply to imported farm goods. Thus, farmers in poor countries would have a stronger and more stable basis for the future and their governments would be given some leeway to protect producers through import tariffs. The poorest countries would not have to cut their tariffs at all and could benefit from initiatives to offer duty-free and quota-free access to their exports.

With government budgets tighter than ever, increased aid for agriculture in developing countries is being pushed down the list of political priorities. Signing a deal on trade could be an easy way for leaders to signal commitment to the promises they’ve made and send a message to investors.

A trade agreement alone will not solve the problem of hunger. It would need to be part of a broader array of initiatives, including aid, investment and access to technologies. However, a trade deal that delivers development outcomes could be a step in the right direction — and a sign that countries are serious about uniting against hunger.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 16th, 2010.

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