The Guardian 10 June 2002
By Colin Hines
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation's [FAO] World Food Summit takes place this week in Rome with an agenda to increase global trade in food. This will be backed up with ceaseless assurances that this is the route to hunger and poverty alleviation.
Many non-governmental organisations [NGO's] have a similar emphasis on third world food exports, but concentrate on calling for 'one sided protectionism': tariff reductions in the developed world, but their retention in developing countries to allow them to protect themselves.
Thus Oxfam calls for 'complete market access to rich country markets for low income countries' and has dashingly launched a campaign to 'unleash the potential of trade to reduce poverty'. Backing this up is the oft-quoted claim that northern barriers cost developing countries '$100bn a year- twice as much as they receive in aid'.
Such mammoth figures assume a best-case scenario of all developing countries having the investment and infrastructure ready to leap upon any trade opportunities that hove into view.
Christian Aid has looked at what potential there would be for the 49 poorest countries if they had to ply their trade in open markets, given their domestic situations. Its figure is £1.5bn. If that were shared out equally, it would come to the less than princely sum of £30 million for each country.
In return for this, developing countries would experience the serious downsides of export dependence. In our report 'Another Agriculture is Possible' we catalogued these for India, the largest democracy in the world with one in four of the world's farmers.
Since India was forced by a World Trade Organisation ruling to accelerate the opening of its markets, food imports have quadrupled. It has been flooded with cheap subsidised imports not just from rich countries like the US, but also from Asian competitors such as Malaysia and Thailand.
Prices and rural incomes have plummeted; the price paid for coconuts has fallen 80%, for coffee 60% and pepper 45%. The most dramatic effect has been on edible oil. India's domestic production has been effectively wiped out due to lack of adequate import controls.
Highly subsidised soya from the US and palm oil from Malaysia have flooded the market. Imports account for 70% of the domestic consumption of edible oil.
The dash for exports is also threatening rural livelihoods. Andhra Pradesh in Southern India is making exports a priority using World Bank money and £65m in UK aid this year. The plan proposes to consolidate small farms and rapidly increase mechanisation and modernisation.
The expected result is to reduce the number of people on the land from 70% to 40% by 2020; about 20m people will have to leave the countryside over the next 20 years.
Not surprisingly, opposition to these events is widespread. Indian farmers' organisations, trades unionists and activists have joined with academics and two former prime ministers to call for the reintroduction of import controls, so challenging the linchpin of the globalisation process -- ever lower trade barriers.
Third world activists as a whole are agreed that the other priority must be to take agriculture out of the WTO.
So what new direction should the FAO take this week to begin finally to tackle global poverty and hunger?
In essence it should embrace the concept of 'local food, global solution'. There is, of course, the need for rules-based trade in goods, between countries seeking materials they cannot themselves grow or produce and those that can supply them.
Such trade must have as a goal the necessity to contribute to the protection and rebuilding of local, national and regional economies, and so improve the conditions of the poor. It should be covered by the rules of 'fair trade' not the WTO's deification of international competitiveness.
To minimise contributions to climate change, residual long distance trade should take place with the minimum of 'food miles' between producer and consumer.
Finally to ensure a secure income for exporting farmers from what we have called 'Fair Trade Miles', they must be linked to a guaranteed quantity of goods to be purchased by each buying country, within a guaranteed range of prices.
This would allow the exporting nations to have a relatively stable level of earnings with which to contribute to the overriding goal of rediversifying local production.
In short a move from more market reliance to more self-reliance.
Colin Hines and Vandana Shiva are co-authors of 'A Better Agriculture is Possible: Local Food, Global Solutions.'
Colin Hines is the UK author of the book Localization: a global manifesto.
Vandana Shiva, an Indian pro-localist, anti-globalisation activist and academic, was recently named by 'Asia Week' as the fifth most powerful person in Asia.