Apr 21, 2009

G-8 Farm Ministers prepare for farmers funeral

Ten years from now when the G-8 Farm Ministers will meet in 2119 for their annual sojourn -- Agriculture Ministers Summit -- somewhere in Timbaktoo or in Doha or in the Chilean highlands, the main agenda will be to place a wreath at the tomb of the farmer.

The last surviving farmer or a group of farmers who managed to somehow survive the onslaught of the market forces would be there to remember the departed millions, and all that the G-8 ministers will do is to swear in the memory of the fallen farmers, bow their heads for two minutes silence and reiterate their commitment to promote sustainable agriculture.

After the memorial ceremony is over, it will be business as usual. The only difference being that with farmers -- the last stumbling block in the takeover of global griculture by the corporates -- already removed, the Summit will focus on the stock market tabulations, upheavals and the financial stimulus needed to keep the agribusiness companies alive and afloat.

At the concluding ceremony, you will find the present Italian Farm, Food, and Forestry Policies Minister Mr Luca Zaia, being called upon to receive the coveted Charles Darwin International Award for Survival of the Species. He will be recognised for the exemplary courage demonstrated at the time of 2009 Summit wherein he was the lone dissenting voice against removing protectionism in agriculture. He will be remembered for saying: "In my personal opinion, if the Doha Round means to scrap import duties and starve our farmers, well; we are not here to attend a funeral of Italian agriculture."

As the applause dies down, the 2119 Summit will acknowledge the failure of the world to heed to the warning issued by Devinder Sharma and a large number of his colleagues, and place on record their contribution that unfortunately could not save the farmer as a species from disappearing from the face of the planet.

You can dismiss this as a figment of my imagination, and if you do it you will be doing it at your own peril. Take a look at the final declaration of the G-8 Agriculture Ministers Summit, and you will know what I mean. It is a document that could have been prepared by any graduate student in management studies at Harvard and Cambridge. It is a document that has merely prefixed the world sustainable at a number of places, and it is a text that will be digested easily by a gullible media. In short, what I have always been saying: the vocabulary is always right, the implied actions are wrong.

If you read the final declaration of the World Food Summit 1996; or the FAO High-Level Conference on World Food Security, held at Rome in June 2008; or the G-8 Leaders Statement on Global Food Security, held at Tokyo, Japan in June 2008; they all read alike. They all talk of helping developing countries and countries in transition to expand agriculture and food production and to increase investment in agriculture, agribusiness and rural development, from both public and private sources. They tell us that ensuring access to food and water is essential for sustainable development and for our future. Talks of creating an enabling environment to improve policy coherence, and recognise farmers to be the main protagonist of the farm sector.

Realising the need to sustain the benefits of globalisation and open markets, they reiterate the need for a rule based international trading system for agricultural trade and seek for a balanced, comprehensive and ambitious conclusion of the Doha round. Well, more or less, they say the same, and mean the same.

In simple words, it means the G-8 supports the ongoing international efforts to ensure that farmers exit from agriculture. In short, the ground is being prepared for farmers' funeral.

You can read the final declaration at http://www.g8agricultureministersmeeting.mipaaf.com/en/

I draw your attention to a study that I and my colleagues did at the time of the WTO Hong Kong Ministerial. Entitled - Trade Liberalisation in Agriculture: Lessons from the First 10 Years of Agreement on Agriculture, the study concluded by saying:

The writing has been on the wall. The underlying objective of the free trade paradigm is to ensure that the developing countries should stop growing staple foods and some of the commercially most important commodities like cotton and sugar. The OECD countries will – thanks to the monumental subsidies and increasing protection – continue to maintain its dominance for these crops. In fact, the process to shift the production of staple foods and major commercial commodities to the OECD had begun much earlier. WTO is merely legitimizing the new global farming systems.

World Bank/IMF had under the structural adjustment policies very clearly tied up credit with crop diversification. It continues to force developing countries to shift from staple foods (crucial for food security needs) to cash crops that meet the luxury requirement of the western countries. It has therefore been forcing developing countries to dismantle state support to food procurement, withdraw price support to farmers, dismantle food procurement, and relax land ceiling laws that enable the corporate sector to move into agriculture. Farmers need to be left at the mercy of the market forces. Since they are ‘inefficient’ producers, they need to be replaced by the industry.

The same prescription for farming is not vigorously pursued in the industrialized countries. Let us be very clear, one part of the world that needs to go in for immediate crop diversification is the industrial world. These are the countries that produce mounting surpluses of wheat, rice, corn, soybean, sugar beat, cotton, and that too under environmentally unsound conditions. These are the countries that inflict double the damage – first destroy the land by highly intensive crop practices, pollute ground water, contaminate the environment, and then receive massive subsidies to keep these unsustainable practices artificially viable.

If the WTO has its ways, and the developing countries fail to understand the prevailing politics that drives the agriculture trade agenda, the world will soon have two kinds of agriculture systems – the rich countries will produce staple foods for the world’s 6 billion plus people, and developing countries will grow cash crops like tomato, cut flowers, peas, sunflower, strawberries and vegetables. The dollars that developing countries earn from exporting these crops will eventually be used to buy food grains from the developed nations – in reality, back to the days of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence.

Take the case of Central America. The debt crisis that inflicted the Central American countries in the 1980s was very conveniently used to shift the cropping pattern to non-traditional exports. Aided and abetted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), farmers were lured to the illusion of greener pastures in the developed world. They shifted to crops like melons, strawberries, cauliflower, broccoli and squash that were shipped to the supermarkets, mainly in America. In turn, these Central American countries disbanded cultivation of staple crops like corn and bean, and have now become major importers.

Developed country agriculture has so far enjoyed a unique ‘special and differential’ treatment that was actually reserved for the developing and least developed countries. The impregnable wall that has been built since the days of the Uruguay Round is not so easy to breach.

Tragically, the suicide by the Korean farmer Lee Kyung-hae at Cancun in Sept 2003 amplifies the devastation that WTO has wrought on the farming communities all over the world. Unfortunately, what has not been understood is that WTO has very cleverly pitted farming communities of one country against the other. We know that Jamaican farmers are worried over the cheaper dairy imports from UK; Filipino farmers are worried of cheaper imports of rice from the US; the Indonesian farmers are worried of cheaper rice from US and Vietnam; Indian farmers are worried of cheaper silk from China and cheaper tea from Sri Lanka; the list is endless…

Strange that from 1995 onwards – the year WTO came into existence – farmers all over the world are a harried lot. They are unsure of what the fellow farmers from across their national borders would dump at artificially low prices. These are the farmers who have become the victim of unfair trade liberalization. The reason is obvious. There is someone who benefits from putting two farming communities (of different countries) confront each other. These are the agri-business companies.

A true reform in agriculture is only possible when the global community accepts the guiding principle that food for all is an international obligation. It can only be achieved when the need for national food self-sufficiency becomes the cornerstone of the AoA. It can only be put into practice when the developed and the developing countries refrain from a battle of food supremacy to reorient efforts to bring equality, justice and human compassion in addressing the mankind’s biggest scourge – chronic hunger and acute malnutrition.

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