Published: 27/06/2002

Critical assessment of the June World Food Summit in Rome has tended to focus on the almost provocative absence of meaningful political representation by wealthy countries. Only two Western heads of state took part, and one of them – Italy’s Berlusconi – closed down the summit early to watch the football World Cup. The summit’s failure was thus a failure of political will.

Much of this criticism, however misses the point. The majority of governments of wealthy food-exporting nations have long since turned over direct responsibility for food policy to their leading agrobusiness corporations. Heads of state attended to their business, industry lobbyists to theirs. “We’re here to sell biotechnology”, a US delegate told the UK’s Guardian, “and that’s what we’ve done.”

So while the summit failed to offer even the proverbial crumbs to the hungry, global agro-business walked away with the prize: formal UN endorsement of the grotesque proposition that GM foods constitute an effective means for combating global hunger. Failure of will or business as usual? To put this development in context, it is useful to return to the original summit’s Action Plan.

The 1996 World Food Summit established the goal of halving world hunger by 2015 through, among other measures, the implementation of “food, agricultural trade and overall trade policies…conducive to fostering food security for all through a fair and market-oriented world trade system.” In practice, this means the “food, agricultural trade and overall trade policies” enforced by the WTO and regional trading blocs like NAFTA, i.e. the very policies which are predicated upon and are deepening global food insecurity.

The facts speak for themselves. FAO research shows that the opening-up of developing country markets under the WTO regime has resulted in a dramatic surge of food imports, growing landlessness and rural unemployment, and declining output per capita among rural producers. The global corporations which increasingly dominate world trade in food are trading in hunger. And the subsidized dumping of food in developing country markets – the single greatest factor in the destruction of local agriculture – was sidelined as a “non-trade issue” at the WTO’s Doha summit, which endorsed a new round of talks for deepening corporatel domination of global food markets.

At the Rome summit, US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman rejected criticism of the US government’s 18 billion dollar increase in agricultural subsidies by suggesting that the solution to hunger lay with… biotechnology and GMOs. Bad seeds, rather than corporate-dominated trade regimes, are to blame if 800 million people go hungry every day.

Here again, the facts tell a different story. None of the commercial GM crop varieties under cultivation has shown increased yields or reduced pesticide or water consumption. But the 30-fold expansion of GM acreage in the last five years coincides with a process of unprecedented corporate concentration and the emergence of so-called “life-science” corporations combining seed patenting and chemical inputs. Agricultural biotechnology is dominated by just five companies; Monsanto’s GM seeds account for over 90 percent of commercial GM crops. Genetic engineering for herbicide resistance accounts for 77 percent of the global GM area. The herbicide is made by Monsanto, which also owns the gene patent.

GMOs have nothing to do with feeding the hungry and everything to do with feeding corporate coffers. Commercialization of GMOs, enforced where necessary by WTO sanctions, and the rising GM contamination of natural plant species, are not only a threat to rural lives and livelihoods. They are a serious menace to the biodiversity on which depends real – as opposed to corporate – advances in agricultural progress, and they must be stopped.

Can the FAO and food summitry contribute to reducing global hunger? Yes, given appropriate changes in the international context in which food is produced and traded. That in turn depends on a sustained union mobilization to wrest control over food and agricultural policy from the corporations which currently dominate national and global policies and institutions.