How the Food Summit Fell Sadly Short

If the results of the recently concluded World Food Summit are any indication, the much touted "bridge to the 21st century" will be extremely narrow. A wider passageway, one that would accommodate today's 840 million hungry people, requires a greater sense of urgency and moral compulsion on the part of world leaders than the business-as-usual approach reflected in the summit's Plan of Action.

In a world where one in five people suffers from hunger and as many more worry about their daily bread, the political leaders committed themselves to only one concrete, time-bound commitment: by 2015 to reduce by half the number of chronically malnourished people in the world.

What would a World Food Summit that was serious about eradicating hunger have looked like? It would have begun with a straightforward affirmation of the human right to food and a recognition that food is the staff of life, not simply another market commodity. It would have been willing to tackle difficult issues with far-reaching implications for both rich and poor nations. It would have demonstrated a willingness of all countries to share the sacrifice and hard work needed to achieve universal food security.

The summit was wanting on nearly all these counts. Rich countries, eager to remove the speck from the eye of poor countries that are home to most of the world's hungry, failed to detect the log in their own eye. The Plan of Action provides for close scrutiny of developing country policies without a similar assessment of food-related policies in rich countries or the practices of corporate food giants.

For example, the food security impact of grain production needed to sustain the meat-eating habits of affluent countries is not considered. Limits on the ability of the market to achieve food security go unrecognized. Instead, increased international trade is touted as the sure-fire way to ensure food for all.

The Summit Declaration begins by affirming the "right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger." The United States immediately backpedaled, stating as part of the official summit record its view that such a right is a "goal or aspiration that does not give rise to any international obligations nor diminish the responsibilities of national governments toward their citizens." To the dismay of humanitarian organizations, only the US and Kuwait voted to oppose a provision forswearing the use of food as a political weapon.

Where will this business-as-usual approach lead? The vast majority of today's hungry people are likely to remain hungry. Current trends in a number of areas suggest the possibility that the number of hungry people will begin to increase in the absence of more compelling action. The world's population is projected to increase by nearly 2 billion over the next 25 years. Diminishing and degraded cropland points to decreasing yields. World grain stocks are at historically low levels.

Is there reason for optimism in the face of such a disappointing summit outcome? Two developments in recent decades offer promise. The first is the mobilization of women - as farmers, marketers, consumers, and mothers. They insist - and others, including many world leaders, agree - that the right to food will become a reality only if the central role of women is recognized and supported.

The second development is the proliferation and mobilization of citizen and voluntary organizations. Farmers, consumers, indigenous peoples, and youth the world over are coming together to help themselves, to speak their truth to government decisionmakers, to work with governments to implement mutual goals, and, indeed, to seek a place at the policymaking table.

Citizen and voluntary organizations at the summit advocated adopting the concept of food sovereignty, "the right of every country to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity." This is included in their proposal for a Global Convention on Food Security that would subject trade pacts and macroeconomic policies to food security criteria.

The food summit revealed a chasm between citizens and governments. The foundation of citizens' efforts should be the affirmation of the value of every human being - a message ingrained in our various holiday traditions.

*Kathryn Wolford is president of Lutheran World Relief in New York, and Cheryl Morden is its associate director of the Office on Development Policy.

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