November 12, 2009 / 11:34 AM / 8 years ago

Food summit to make little headway in war on hunger

<p>A malnourished baby cries in his mother's lap inside Medicine Sans Frontieres intensive care unit near Sheshemene, southern Ethiopia, June 8, 2008.Radu Sigheti</p>

ROME (Reuters) - A U.N. world food summit next week is likely to make little headway in the fight against hunger, with leaders simply pledging to boost agricultural aid to poor countries but setting no targets or deadlines for action.

With more than one billion people going hungry, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation had called the November 16-18 summit in Rome hoping to win a clear pledge by world leaders to spend $44 billion a year to help poor nations feed themselves.

But a final draft declaration seen by Reuters includes only a general commitment to pump more money into agricultural development, and makes no mention of a proposal to eliminate hunger by 2025.

"We commit to take action towards sustainably eradicating hunger at the earliest possible date," said the draft of the declaration, to be adopted on the first day of the Rome summit barring last-minute amendments.

Aid groups said the summit, which few if any G8 leaders are expected to attend, already looked like a missed opportunity.

"The declaration is just a rehash of old platitudes," said Francisco Sarmento, ActionAid's food rights coordinator.

France said the draft was insufficient and vowed to push for firmer pledges on finance and regulation of global agricultural markets.

"The draft final declaration of the summit...is a draft that still needs to be improved," said Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire, who will be representing France at the summit.

Food shortages and malnutrition rose to the top of the political agenda since a spike in food prices last year sparked riots in around 60 countries and hoarding. The food scare also prompted some richer food importers like Saudi Arabia to snap up farmland in developing agricultural countries.

A G8 summit in July pledged $20 billion over three years to help farmers in poor nations, in a major policy shift away from emergency food rations and towards longer term strategies.

FAO had hoped to keep the momentum going and that leaders would commit to raising the percentage of official aid spent on agriculture to 17 percent -- back to the 1980 level -- from 5 percent now. That would amount to roughly $44 billion annually, instead of the $7.9 billion that is being spent now.

THREAT TO PEACE

Since last year's record levels, the prices of staple commodities like rice, corn and wheat have fallen.

But in developing countries they are still high and according to several experts new spikes are all but inevitable.

FAO says the number of hungry people this year rose to 1.02 billion people, more than at any other time in history and up 100 million from last year.

A child dies of malnutrition every six seconds despite the fact that the world produces more than enough food for everybody -- cereals crops in 2009 are expected to be the second largest ever, after a record 2008.

"This scourge is not just a moral outrage and economic absurdity, but also represents a threat for our peace and security," FAO Director General Jacques Diouf said this week.

"Hungry people are a serious potential source of conflict and forced migration," Diouf, who is Senegalese, told reporters.

Previous food summits and meetings have been long on rhetoric and short on concrete action, and whatever promises were made have gone largely unfulfilled.

In 2000, world leaders subscribed to the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015, and next week's summit will reaffirm commitment to that target.

Even U.N. officials acknowledge that aim will not be met anytime soon, with some pointing to mid-2040 at the earliest.

FAO has not released a list of participants, but even its most optimistic estimates indicate than less than one third of the 193 heads of state and government invited will attend.

Crucially, most G8 leaders or even top government officials will skip the summit, although there will be several heads of state from Latin America and Africa.

The United States, the world's biggest food aid donor and a driving force in the fight against hunger under President Barack Obama, is sending the acting head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, whose new boss has just been named.

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