Anuradha Mittal


What will it take for the WTO to notice starving
children in Niger or Malawi?

Trade negotiators from 148 countries gathered at the sixth World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial in Hong Kong in December, with the task of shaping the final agreement of the Doha Development Agenda. The talks are deadlocked on several contentious issues. To save face, the WTO is already scaling down ambitions for this ministerial and placing blame on Europe and developing countries for their inability to resolve differences.

Anuradha Mittal, photo portraitCourtesy Anuradha MittalAnuradha Mittal

The problem is not the developing countries or Europe, but the model of development that the Doha Development Agenda promotes. What will it take for the elite countries in the WTO to notice starving children in Niger or Malawi? Or over 6.5 million children who have already died this year from hunger and poverty-related causes – more than one every five seconds.

US food aid, one of the sore points in the very contentious negotiations on agriculture, is being challenged by European and other countries as a form of subsidy to US agribusiness. Initiated in 1954, US food aid continues to be driven by the motive of disposing of large surpluses of cereals and capturing new markets overseas. Those who profit from food aid are US agribusiness and shipping companies. For example, Horizon Milling, a joint venture of Cargill Inc. and CHS Inc., has sold $1.09 billion worth of grain for food aid operations to the US government since 1995. The second player, the shipping industry, is supported by the 1985 Farm Bill, which requires that at least 75 percent of US food aid be shipped on US vessels.

Preference given to in-kind food donations produced in the US and to the US shipping industry makes US food aid the most expensive in the world. On average, it delays delivery of emergency food aid by nearly five months. Recognizing this, the EU procures a major share of its food aid – 90 percent in 2004 – from developing countries. Canada increased local and regional purchases from 10 to 50 percent this September. But the United States still avoids local and regional purchases.

Starting next year, the White House and the US Agency for International Development have proposed to spend one-quarter of the food-aid budget to buy food grown by local or regional producers. But House and Senate leaders have rejected this recommendation. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, warns bluntly that buying food aid overseas would erode congressional support for famine-fighting programs.

US food aid needs drastic changes. The replacement of in-kind, US-grown food aid with local purchases would double the amount of food available. What’s more, local purchases must prioritize procurement from small-scale farmers whose livelihoods have been directly affected by agricultural liberalization and the dumping of cheap food as aid. Local purchases will eventually benefit local agriculture and reduce the need for food aid in the long run. In addition, more, not less, aid for rural development (which has been cut by half in the past two decades, from $5.14 to $2.22 billion) is necessary.

Instead of promoting a corporate-driven agenda, the WTO needs to realize that a true development agenda would promote food sovereignty of Third World countries. This would require strong national agricultural policies that recognize farmers’ rights to seeds, water, land, and support for the production of staple food rather than cash crops. Institutions that protect prices and domestic markets for small farmers, and manage national food stocks to mitigate the effects of food production fluctuation, would be strengthened.

As we head towards the next WTO ministerial in Hong Kong, the promoters of the Doha Development Agenda probably face a similar scenario to the last ministerial in Cancun 2003, where the trade talks collapsed amidst massive civil society unrest and walk-outs by Third World country delegates. They face some simple questions: Do we want freedom from hunger or freedom to trade? Do we want the world envisioned by Cargill and ADM, or do we want strong native cultures proud of their ability to feed their people?

Anuradha Mittal is director of the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank that promotes fair debate and increased public participation by bringing dynamic new voices into policy debates on critical economic and social issues.

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