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UN Agencies Accused of Neglecting Agriculture as Global Food Crisis Worsens

COLUM LYNCH Irish Times           

UN:The spike in food prices has prompted a backlash against the FAO, writes Colum Lynchat the UN in New York.

BUFFETED BY food riots at home, Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade, earlier this month lashed out at a distant culprit: the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which he slammed as a wasteful "bottomless pit of money" that should be abolished for failing to help increase global food production.

Wade's broadside is part of a backlash against multilateral organisations that were created after the second World War - including the FAO, the World Bank and the World Food Programme - charged with weaving together a safety net for the world's poorest. The recent spike in food prices has ripped a massive tear in that net, triggering riots around the world and threatening to plunge more than 100 million people into extreme poverty.

Analysts claim that decades of neglect of agriculture by those agencies has left many countries with less food to feed their people.

"There has been a very deep institutional failure over how we deal with food problems," says Peter Timmer, a Stanford University scholar who studies food security. "Everybody understands that 80 per cent of the world's poor are in rural areas. But the World Bank for 30 years has basically said market signals don't support agriculture, so we can't support agriculture."

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon last week convened a task force of multilateral agencies to try to stitch the safety net back together. It intends to present a plan of action aimed at lowering trade barriers, boosting agricultural production and extending a lifeline to the poorest at a summit of world leaders on June 3rd-5th at FAO headquarters in Rome.

"I can understand and sympathise with the frustrations of many African leaders," Ban told reporters earlier this month. But he said: "This crisis did not come out of the blue. It grew out of more than a decade of neglect and ineffective development policies."

The FAO has become the target of increasing criticism. An independent review of its policies last summer claimed the agency had lost the confidence of donors, who have steadily reduced funding to the organisation over the past decade.

FAO's director general, Jacques Diouf, defended the agency's record in a statement last Thursday, blaming a host of external factors: neglect of agriculture by policymakers, population growth, rising food consumption in China and India, subsidies for food and biofuels, and climate change, drought, hurricanes and cyclones. "Does FAO bring 78.5 million babies into the world every year?" Diouf asked.

Last year the World Bank also commissioned an internal review of its agricultural programmes in Africa, concluding that, "over time, the importance of agriculture in the bank's rural strategy has declined".

World Bank president Robert Zoellick has vowed to reverse the slide, proposing to boost annual lending for African agriculture from $450 million (€290 million) to $800 million. He has also pressed the US, Japan and European governments to end agricultural subsidies that make it difficult for poor farmers to compete in global markets.

Zoellick has called for reducing the sort of food donations favoured by the US. The World Food Programme (WFP), established in the 1950s to distribute surplus US and European food stocks, concedes that shipping too much food aid into poor countries can hurt local farmers, says Nancy Roman, the WFP's director of policy planning. But the US farmers and shipping companies that supply the WFP have resisted the change.

The WFP has already reduced its share of food donations - known as "in-kind" aid - to 50 per cent of its overall giving, Roman says. And the programme has increased the portion of food it buys in the developing world and is pressing states to give more cash than food.

Scholars say responsibility for the crisis is widely shared and that many poor countries, primarily in Africa, have failed to invest enough in agriculture and squandered what little aid has come from international agencies. At the same time, rich governments have undercut African farmers through costly agricultural subsidies at home.

European governments, meanwhile, have clung to an import ban on high-yielding, genetically modified crops - thus dissuading African nations from using a technology that could increase production.

"The two biggest follies are biofuels in America and the ban on genetically modified crops in Europe," says Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford University. "There is a phone call to be made between Washington and Europe that says we'll back off our idiocies and you back off of yours."

Collier says international policymakers have focused too much on the plight of small-scale farmers and not enough on production. He proposed large-scale farming in countries such as Mozambique, Zambia and Angola.

But other experts have argued that a massive increase in farming could exhaust limited water resources and hasten global warming by destroying forests.

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, a special adviser to Ban, says it is "ridiculous" to suggest there has been too much attention paid to small farmers. He says they will need financing to pay for seeds, fertilisers and technology to prevent crop failures.

Both Sachs and Collier agree that multilateral organisations, despite their failings, will have to play a key role in fixing the problem.

"These are the organisations we've got," Collier says. "It took the second World War to produce them, and we better try to make them work." - (LA Times-Washington Post service)

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