UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR JUDGES LIBERALIZATION HARMFUL TO FRAGIL AGRICULTURES

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 18 Dec 2008

Jean-Pierre Stroobants, Le Monde

    Olivier De Schutter, a Belgian academic who is currently the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, is about to present a much-awaited report to Pascal Lamy, director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It concerns both the impact of liberalized world trade on hunger in the world and free trade’s ability to affect the policy of governments which are required to assure everyone’s access to food.

    Mr. De Schutter argues for a revision of the concepts that preside over liberalization. He emphasizes that liberalization – or free trade in agricultural products – threatens the already-precarious situation of tens of millions of small farmers and gives rise to "hidden" social, environmental, and health costs. "It’s not any more favorable for the consumer, faced with a strong rise in prices, than it is for the small producer to whom an ever-decreasing price is paid. On the other hand, the chain of distribution gets longer, which contributes to the enrichment of various intermediaries," the rapporteur explains.

    Five hundred million producers in the world are forced to buy their seed and fertilizer from a dozen oligopolies and then to sell their production for a derisory price. "We must improve the governance of this trade, generalize fair exchange," argues Mr. De Schutter.

    Close to 900 million people suffer from hunger, while the planet theoretically produces enough food for all its inhabitants. The agreements on which the WTO is based provide for better access of all agricultural products to the market, a reduction in production subsidy programs and the reduction – even the elimination – of export subsidies.

    That program is far from being realized, with the agriculture chapter constituting one of the obstacles to the conclusion of free trade negotiations. The negotiations begun in Doha in 2001 to make developing countries benefit from trade liberalization are not making any headway.

    Dependence

    Mr. De Schutter’s report does not investigate an ideal future, but the current situation. "The WTO’s position is, roughly, that the negative impacts resulting from liberalization, notably for small holders and marginal populations, will be compensated by the expansion of export sectors," he explains. "That approach, which establishes a balance sheet of gains and losses, is inadequate, since, in so many cases, governments are not in a position to compensate for those negative impacts on their population."

    Countries have been encouraged to specialize in sectors where they enjoy comparative advantages: cotton in West Africa, coffee for Colombia and Ethiopia, sugar for other countries. They were promised that with the foreign currency thus collected, they would be able to import whatever they needed to feed their population at a lower cost than they could have produced it themselves.

    One problem: that created their dependence on ever more volatile commodity indices. After a reduction in the price of their products, they can no longer pay for their imports, the cost of which has gone up by factors as high as five or six. The development the WTO encouraged has sometimes even transformed formerly self-sufficient countries into importers.

    Moreover, the accent put on international trade has strongly increased the agricultural world’s fragmentation: 85 percent of producers work surfaces smaller than two hectares; 0.5 percent of producers possess over 100 hectares. "Betting strongly on exports increases this disparity. It favors the wealthiest 0.5 percent and marginalizes everyone else," Mr. De Shutter observes.

    Another aspect: the rise in imports – which should double between 2000 and 2030 – is in the process of changing food habits. Developing countries are confronted with diabetes, cancer, and cardio-vascular illness epidemics under the influence of processed foods containing more fat, salt and sugar.

    Finally, the least well-off countries are the most exposed to global warming. While global population could reach 9.2 billion individuals in 2080, hunger could threaten 600 million more people due to the progression of arid and semi-arid zones, lack of water, and the effects of global warming to which the present mode of agricultural production contributes massively. "The challenge is not just to produce more food, but to produce it while preserving the environment, as well as the most destitute people in the countryside and cities," the UN’s special rapporteur concludes.

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