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Food summit ends with contentious resolution

June 06, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — A world summit on hunger veered near collapse late Thursday when Latin American countries objected bitterly to a final, watered-down resolution designed to boost agriculture and control soaring food prices.

Ultimately, the declaration was adopted, with about 180 countries pledging to work to eliminate hunger and secure access to food "for all, today and tomorrow" through urgent actions, including the easing of trade barriers and the supply of seeds and fertilizer to poor farmers.

No significant agreement was reached on one of the more divisive issues, the production of biofuels and what effect they have on the costs of food and on the environment. The resolution did not contain stronger language sought by critics of biofuels, which are strongly supported by the Bush administration.

The three-day summit was called by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization as an emergency response to high food prices that officials say could threaten nearly 1 billion people with starvation. United Nations officials said $20 billion to $30 billion a year was needed to fight hunger, which can trigger social and political unrest.

"This has reminded us that there are still millions of people in the world . . . who face famine," said Denzil Douglas, prime minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, who briefed reporters after the resolution was adopted. "I believe now resources will be mobilized quickly."

Numerous issues divided the delegates, and there were moments when a final agreement seemed elusive.

Led by Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela, a veritable revolt by much of Latin America dragged negotiations hours past the original deadline and frayed the nerves of numerous participants.

One delegate from Africa chided her colleagues for creating the "appearance of grandstanding . . . as people are dying."

But the Latin American delegates said the declaration was merely paying lip service to the urgent starvation crisis. These delegates noted that the final document did not condemn subsidies maintained by wealthy nations nor did it challenge the price-aggravating control exercised by big agricultural companies.

Argentina and Venezuela argued that the market-based policies being promoted at the conference risked exacerbating poverty and hunger in Latin America. Argentina was especially forceful in objecting to language in the final document that criticizes export restrictions similar to those it has imposed.

Venezuela protested the resolution as "a step backwards," saying it treats the food-price crisis as the result of a convergence of factors rather than as a result of the structural flaws of capitalism.

The summit declaration "frankly neglects the vital needs of those who suffer from hunger," Cuban delegate Orlando Requeijo Gual said.

Another point of irreconcilable dispute was biofuels. The U.S. delegation, led by Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer, welcomed the declaration's support for further study -- timid language compared with the restrictions that some countries had sought.

FAO Secretary-General Jacques Diouf said the gap between supporters and opponents of biofuels was too wide to bridge. The declaration reflected "the minimum common denominator," he said.

Diouf, on the opening day of the summit, was among the critics of the biofuel industry, which many experts charge is converting too much corn and cereals into ethanol for motor vehicles instead of meals for hungry families.

Diouf acknowledged that some disputes could not be resolved.

"The main thing is we brought attention to this problem" of hunger, he told reporters at a late-night news conference.

"It is not just a humanitarian problem. It's an economic problem, a political problem. It's a problem of peace and security if you don't address it."

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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