Food conference highjacked by free trade corporates

[Frog: This is the first of three posts sent to me from Sue Kedgley, who is attending the World Food Conference in Rome]

As usual in these international conferences, clarity and truth came from civil society and the NGO’s than from the set piece speeches of most world leaders.

NGO’s were treated appallingly at the conference. Not allowed to participate in the main conference, they were confined to quarters 2 kilometeres away in a converted abbatoir, festooned with yellow banners proclaiming food sovereignty. They were permitted to hold one forum in the main conference -in a small obscure and hard to find room in the byzantine
FAO headquarters-which only a handful of delegates, including yours truly, attended.

But when I navigated my way through backstreets and finally located the NGO ‘parallel forum’ it became apparent why they had been kept at a safe distance from the conference for they were challenging the entire modus operandi of the conference, as their alternative ‘declaration’ made clear.

They feared that corporate elites were using the food emergency to push free trade liberalization policies and corporate industrial agricultural solutions which had given rise to the crisis in the first place.  They worried that that the result could be even greater corporate control of the food chain.

They argued that the main cause of the crisis was that food production in much of the developing world has been decimated by three decades of globalization and free trade liberalization policies. Previously self sufficient countries had been unable to compete with heavily subsidized, cheap European and American food and so small self sufficient agricultural
sectors collapsed in country after country, leaving developing countries dependent on imports and food aid.

Now finding themselves unable to afford these once self sufficient countries are in a desperate state, and challenging the entire free trade agenda. Food sovereignty is the new catch cry,with many countries saying we have to switch from the old paradigm of relying on cheap food imports, to producing most of their own food.

Free trade liberalization as a consequence, is all but dead, with countries erecting export controls, introducing subsidies and other measures to protect and support local farmers.

27 Comments Posted

  1. Frog – of course it is uneven, no NZ farmer needs to be told that. You’ve evaded the point. Sue talked of Europe and the USA in the same mould as free trade, she talked of an end to that agenda when in fact it needs to be applied to the EU, USA and Japan. By no means have developing countries liberalised extensively on agriculture or agricultural inputs either, there are plenty of barriers (usually tariffs on inputs) in developing countries. They are far from innocent.

    I’m glad you agree first world barriers have to come down. Why doesn’t Sue say that? Why doesn’t she support the Doha round and the Cairns Group? Why does she speak approvingly of protectionists like the French Agriculture Minister?

    The Greens cannot straddle both fences. You cannot oppose free trade and oppose protectionism in the first world. You cannot talk of food sovereignty and self sufficiency, and be supportive of exporters from developing countries AND NZ.

    The WTO prohibits export subsidies on manufactured goods because it unfairly undermines producers in other countries – the Bush Administration pushed to extend it to agriculture and the EU said “non”. It would be a damned good start if the Greens simply opposed export subsidies in agriculture, and restrictions on agricultural imports (which put up local prices of food) everywhere. If Sue Kedgley opposes that, then frankly many of the comments above by unaha-closp and SPC are true.

    She has been duped by the first world protectionists, or is this as dumb as being about rhetoric that says free trade bad, Europe/USA bad, developing world good.

    I would’ve thought the only political party in NZ to be duped by economic nationalism is NZ First.

  2. hmmmmmm

    You do realise the implications of what you noted – grassland farming producing dairy and meat is blameless and only that using grain fed stock contributes to the human food security problem.

    The cause is the rising middle class in the ME, East Asia and South Asia and their change in nutrition. That and the amount of US and Brazil land going to bio-fuel.

    On a wider theme, one should note – food security is a nebulous concept whilee face climate change – as areas currently suitable for farming may face temperature change and water shortage. Thus we are all the more dependent on a global supply system which can adjust location of supply to meet global demand. Free trade is the only model which allows for this to occur.

    Greens correctly note we do not yet have fair free trade in food.

  3. World cereal crops have increased by a factor of 3 since 1961 (When the FAO records begin).

    In the same time world population has only doubled – this means there is actually more food than ever.

    Recent years have seen record cereal harvests – if we can have a food crisis in years of record crops, what would happen if there was a large reduction due to pests or drought?

    Shouldn’t we try and make the world food system robust enough to handle such shocks? The current food crisis is a wake up call that we have some work to do.

    According to the FAO the 2.1 billion tonnes of cereal, only 1 billion are eaten directly by people. 756 million are fed to animals, which results in large reduction calories in the resulting animal products. i.e 5 calories of grain are required to make 1 calorie of milk (assuming grain feed cows).

    Collectively as a society we choose to eat luxury food products (meat and dairy), and by doing so we take food away from the poor, the global market conveniently insulates us from this reality.

    Perhaps developed countries could agree to slaughter a small fraction of their animals if cereal prices go too high – thus dropping the need for grain to feed them. Meat and dairy prices would rise, cereal prices would fall. Farmers would need to be compensated. This is similar to what is practiced at a village scale to get through bad years.

    Us rich paying a little more for meat seems a small price to pay in order achieve a planet with stable food prices where everybody can afford to eat.

  4. Free trade liberalization is all but dead, it died when NGOs (self-appointed “representatives” of the worlds poor) teamed up with American agri-business and Euro welfare farmers to defeat the Doha round of the WTO. That free trade reform was pushed by the governments of the non-aligned nations (the legitimate representatives of the independent farmers) who saw it as a positive way to improve the lives of their citzens. Its failure caused the worlds poorest economies to be set back by 3 – 5% and contributed directly to the current crisis.

    The NGOs are a bunch of vile swine who represent only themselves and their first world donors. They are kept around by protectionists in the 1st world as useful self-proclaimed representatives of the millions of independent farmers, farmers who obviously aren’t able to make the meetings and strangely don’t have any say in who these “representatives” are. The NGOs are swabs to the guilt of the protectionist practices of the USA, EU and Japan spouting crap that makes the first world feel good about its subsidies and protectionism.

    If these NGOs have been pushed to the outer, I’d say that would be a reason to cheer. Unfortunately however I am absolutely sure that next time the agri-business protectionists need some flag waving and street protest done to defeat reforms proposed by the poor worlds governments (who legitimately represent the poorest farmers) they’ll be back in the main conference hall.

    PS. – Sue K went to sup with them, didn’t know that.

  5. “Inefficiency is reflected in its price, thus why its importatant to improve efficiency of production as far as possible, so people can afford to eat.”

    We could , of course, solve the problem by ensuring people have enough money to buy food – i.e. make people richer by improving income distribution, rather than demanding that food prices be kept low. We can improve ‘economic efficiency’ by simply making sure farmers are paid less, which is pretty much where developing countries are at, and which hasn’t resulted in a whole lot more food on the market.

    Alternatively, we could use classic free-market supply and demand theory. Let companies charge what they want for food, some people (i.e. the poor) will exercise their freedom of choice buy not buying, or buying less food, this will reduce demand and the price will fall accordingly.

    Quite a few poor people will also fall, in a manner of speaking, but that isn’t the concern of the market.

  6. Sleepy, Economists? Experts in the “science” of political economy? A technocracy is supposed to be government in which scientists and technical experts are in control. Economists and sociologists and other magicians need not apply.

  7. Do we have democracy now or just politics calling itself democracy?

    A vote every three years. The right to make a submission to a select committee if the committee chooses to invite submissions, but since select committees never send invitations to voters it’s only lobbyists and other political activists who generally know when they have the opportunity to be submissive to politicians.

    That’s not my idea of democracy. it’s better to leave important decisions to people who have the competence to make the right decision for the right reasons. Half the voting population have below average intelligence :}

  8. Would like to add a lot more scientific decision making, but you’ll not get rid of the political dimension, even if you could get rid of democracy, which is a particularly bad idea.

  9. samiuela,

    “Is it a good thing that far away countries should be dependent on NZ (for example) for food?”

    Why would other countries become dependant on New Zealand for food?
    Agriculture is one of the most mature and widespread industries in the world. Even kiwifruit is grown and traded in Italy, Chile, California, and elsewhere. There is no way that all eggs would end up in one basket.

    P”erhaps it is better to have localised production of such life critical things as food, even if it is not always as efficient as possible?”

    Inefficiency is reflected in its price, thus why its importatant to improve efficiency of production as far as possible, so people can afford to eat.
    Many commentators agree that the problem isn’t the availability of food, but the inability of people to afford whats available. A compromise on efficiency for the sake of “self-sufficiency” will just make things worse.

    “Which is precisely why we must replace democracy with technocracy”

    You mean these dudes, Kevyn?
    “Why should we care about the debacle of a World Bank report? Because this report represents the final collapse of the “development expert? paradigm that has governed the west’s approach to poor countries since the second world war. All this time, we have hoped a small group of elite thinkers can figure out how to raise the growth rate of a whole economy.”

  10. “You cannot expect a system driven by short-term returns to deal well with issues that are clearly in view but years away.”

    Which is precisely why we must replace democracy with technocracy 😯

  11. libertyscott – the point is not moot. True the WTO never forced open a single agricultural doorway into the developing world. But the simple fact that the IMF and World Bank won’t give you any money if you don’t has pried open every door in the developing world, at the poor’s expense. It’s a travesty. And it has been done at the behest of the big agribusinesses in the name of “free trade.” Orwellian DoubleSpeak

    I’ll agree that the barriers in the first world need to come down, but some simple acknowledgement that the playing field is totally un-level would make your post more credible.

  12. countries erecting export controls, introducing subsidies and other measures to protect and support local farmers.

    Does anyone know which countries these are? Or are they just the recent actions of the rice producing states?

  13. I am in complete disagreement with the Greens on “free trade” and their obeisance to the Kyoto agenda.

  14. It seems that Greens are now the agents of EU CAP “food security” policy, just as they are of the EU’s cynical and useless Kyoto Accord (which does nothing to establish a sustainable global economy, just exports the production for the first world’s consumption to countries outside of Kyoto).

    I am in compete disagreement with the Greens on “free trade” and their obescience to the Kyoto agenda.

    Is someone totally unaware that food security was the reason for not having free trade in food in the first place?

    Are Greens unaware that a reral sustainable global economy requiress carbon charging to be brought into the worlds trade system? But Green opposition to free trade means thwey are part of the problem.

    It was justly said this lack in free trade in food meant that the first world made more in trade with the Third World than they gave in aid. And Greens want more of this food security politics of the haves?

  15. BJ: you said “I think she may not be being “precise? here.” Precise? It is an absolute travesty of the truth. She goes to a conference, on that basis should understand clearly the situation of global trade in food is, and then completely manipulates the truth (which is bad) to be the application of the philosophy she opposes – when it is not. Should one say that the US administration is part of the global effort to reduce CO2 emissions? Hey, may as well. While we’re at it, let’s say that China is part of the worldwide movement to improve human rights.

    You’re right that EU/US/Japan arrogance on trade is an issue, and the Bush Administration has actually been more ready to move on agriculture than any of the others. However yes, she hijacked the term free trade and applied it to the opposite – she’s not stupid enough to do that accidentally.

    Samiuela – Your first para makes sense, but developing countries have never been forced to open up to free trade in agriculture – there has been no WTO round where agriculture was resolved, so it is moot. The EU excuse on this is it wants more liberalisation in services and manufactured goods, Japan is simply uninterested.

    One of the major reasons for significant development in many countries post war has been the liberalisation of trade in manufactured goods and services. Telecommunications being one of the most recent, as technology combined with competition has made an enormous difference to even the simplest activities like international phone calls. This has benefited almost all countries that have taken part in it. Much of the same dynamic will be experienced by many countries if agriculture is opened up. I would expect the likes of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to enjoy an enormous boost from being the best rice producers. NZ obviously has dairy, lamb/wool. Australia, USA have wheat. Sugar, cotton, tropical fruits and nuts will all see the band of tropical countries benefiting to the expense of producers in Europe/USA.

    I don’t think that there will be risks of putting everything in a few baskets. Besides diets being more diversified today than ever before (and increasing), it will mean flexibility and competition, given seasons are different across the world. Remember long distance freight transport per tonne km by sea has a very low fuel cost, which is why dairy from NZ to Europe makes a lot of sense.

    The food sovereignty argument really only makes sense in the case of national security – Japan’s argument that it must be able to feed itself in case it is attacked, which given it enjoys US protection, is rather dubious. South Korea argues the same. On the other hand, Singapore can’t be self sufficient in either energy or food, but hardly fears it.

    Each country’s circumstances need to be looked at in terms of what can be done to allow agriculture to develop, such as removing monopolies on fertiliser and domestic transport, export controls, limitations on property rights. Europe shouldn’t fear it either, much European agriculture would be viable, much in the UK is increasingly high end high value for example. However, parts of France may end up being rural wildlands, and nothing is wrong with that!

  16. Markets can be very beneficial things, but they have a few huge flaws. One is they have no foresight and so cannot be strategic. You cannot expect a system driven by short-term returns to deal well with issues that are clearly in view but years away. This is the root of the current climate change and peak oil issues. Second, markets simply don’t care who wins and who loses, they only reward efficiency. This isn’t good when food is the product. Not saying that food production and distribution should have no market aspects – efficiency and organisation is also required – but the issues encompassed in the term “food sovereignty” must be there too.

    Love this quote – and from an old right winger too:

    “I believe that one ought to have only as much market efficiency as one needs, because everything we value in human life is within the realm of inefficiency – love, family, attachment, community, culture, old habits, comfortable old shoes.” – Edward Luttwak

  17. What you wrote in your first paragraph is what I thought samiuela, she absolutely could be clearer!

  18. I think what Sue Kedgley is trying to say is that third world countries have been forced or coerced into opening up their markets to “free” trade, and have then suffered when subsidised products from Europe and the USA force local farmers out of production. She could have been more clear on this point.

    Is the problem free trade, or the one sided free trade that we see in the current world?

    OK, imagine there was true free trade in agricultural products. Is it a good thing that far away countries should be dependent on NZ (for example) for food? Is there the risk that the world might end up putting all its eggs in one (or a few) basket(s). Perhaps it is better to have localised production of such life critical things as food, even if it is not always as efficient as possible? I am simply raising these points for discussion, and would be interested in what others think.

  19. Not all countries can afford to compete for high priced products. This may be ok for luxuries, but it means death when the same applies to food. Countries need the ability to provide for their own to the extent they can, with trade and aid for the rest. That means owning their resources and being able to direct them to their people. Free trade between developed and developing countries is almost always tilted in favour of the developed countries. This is why there isn’t a developed country that didn’t protect its markets while it was developing.

    And with climate change and peak oil, we need to be encouraging more growing and distribution locally, not shipping more stuff around so the middle men can clip the ticket while people starve.

    Wait until prices really start to go through the roof here. More and more will ask why we have to pay world prices in a land of plenty. Giving people free trade rhetoric in place of affordable food just won’t cut it.

  20. Libertyscott

    I think she may not be being “precise” here. That she is calling the “free trade” movement which comes out of the USA and Eurozone on being what it is… the old “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable” meme. The US and Eurozone do it to everyone else all the time.

    Common in many places. I suspect that she’d think it over and agree with you and try to make her points more clearly. If you reckon that the argument is actually over the hijacking of the words “free trade” you can reduce the contradictions back towards manageable levels. 🙂

    Does that make sense? I may not be right about what she’s doing here, but it seemed so to me.

  21. Astonishing really. One goes to a food conference, proclaiming something has failed (free trade in agriculture) – that has never ever happened, proclaiming that which HAS failed (protectionism in agriculture) is something it is not (free trade). Kedgley is saying black is white, flat is round and wet is dry. It is lunatic.

    This statement is simply that “They argued that the main cause of the crisis was that food production in much of the developing world has been decimated by three decades of globalization and free trade liberalization policies. Previously self sufficient countries had been unable to compete with heavily subsidized, cheap European and American food and so small self sufficient agricultural sectors collapsed in country after country, leaving developing countries dependent on imports and food aid.”

    She says the problem is free trade and then describes the exact opposite! She is either stupid or is a manipulative liar of the first order. How can one possibly argue such utter nonsense with a straight face?

    SOME of the best food producers are restricting exports to lower domestic prices, which ends up lowering domestic production and impoverishes importers who sell OTHER goods.

    Free trade in food would increase NZ’s overall wealth substantially, the status quo costs jobs for ALL producers of food in NZ. Kedgley cheerleading foreign policies that destroy wealth, that hinder all food exporters is economic vandalism. Of course this is her right, but a curious platform to go to the election on “I assert the right of all countries to shut out all our exports, despite previous trade commitments, and we want to assert the same on imports”.

    Sue – argue for trade protectionism, argue for subsidies, export and import controls. Be consistent, say the EU, USA and Japan are on the right track but should do more of it or do it different, but don’t lie about it, don’t call it free trade!

  22. From what I can gather, export controls and subsidies costs the consumer. I see the Greens have not explcitly endorsed such measures, but where is this going exactly? I would love the EU and US’s trade barriers to come down and DO NOT want to go back to directly subsidising farmers.

  23. I agree with Kevin – how can Kedgley say ‘free trade has failed’ when we haven’t even HAD free trade??!

  24. Agreed, the problem is that developing countries have been unable to compete with heavily subsidized, cheap European and American food. The solution? Forget that two wrongs don’t make a right. Take the defeatist attitude – if you can’t beat them join them. The only reason globalization of trade has failed is because EU and USA refuse to participate when it’s not in their selfish interest. Break down that barrier to free trade and everything will be alright. Set food sovereign nation against food sovereign nation and leibesraum will rear it’s ugly head to create the logical progression of World Wars.

    WW1 – all the world fighting on two sides in one country
    WWII – all the world fighting on two sides (axis/allies) on one and a bit continents.
    WW3 – all the world fighting on all sides on every continent.

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