Published: 18/04/2002

Municipal Workers’ Union president Ylva Thörn opens the conference

The IUF-affiliated Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union (recently merged with the Swedish agricultural union SLF) together with the Ministry of Agriculture organized a conference on April 16 to assess the global food system, the problem of world hunger, the position of developing countries and the impact of trade regimes.

Close to one hundred delegates from government, unions, farmers’ organizations and NGOs met in Stockholm to explore the current state of world food and explore implications of the various trading regimes and global and local agricultural policies.

The conference was opened by Municipal Workers’ Union president Ylva Thörn who stressed the need to protect both food security and those who work in the agricultural sector. She highlighted the poor conditions that many migrant agricultural workers face even in Sweden’s advanced agricultural sector and the need to bring social protection to those workers and the entire global agricultural workforce. Kommunal was at the centre of questions concerning worker and consumer food safety and quality, not only through its agricultural membership but also through the union members who provide some 2 million Swedes in schools, care centres for the elderly etc. with their daily meals.

With LO Sweden’s International Secretary Ulf Edström as conference moderator, three keynote speakers then led the conference during the morning session.

Swedish Agricultural Minster Margareta Winberg stressed the need for a fair world trade system and a fair deal for countries in the South. She stressed that 800 million hungry and impoverished people pointed to a system that was not functioning for a huge minority of the world’s population and pledged that the Swedish government would do all in its power to work for a fairer system of world trade in agricultural produce and food. Finally the Minister recalled that Swedish agricultural capacity had needed nurturing during its development and questioned whether we should not more fully recognize the need for similar protection for much of the agriculture of developing countries.

IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald called for a drastic overhaul of the current trade regimes. Pointing to the clear failure of liberalization for the world’s poor he stressed the need to build trade rules around a system of rights, which should take precedence over market issues. Challenging the WTO to protect the poor and defend those rights, Oswald proposed the notion of a UN Economic and Security Council to oversee and regulate world trade built on the widest possible rage of existing protective rights treaties and conventions. In any event we must find a way to halt and reverse the growing control of agribusiness over the production system and its view that hunger was not a social crisis but rather a business opportunity.

The final opening speaker was Caroline Trapp, president of the Swedish Farmers Union. Trapp spoke of the need to protect Swedish agriculture and even to continue subsidies for regional agriculture in Sweden pointing out hat the northern part of Sweden would see its agriculture wiped out without such support. She agreed with the proposition that agriculture in developing countries needed to be nurtured and pointed to the work of the International Federation of Agricultural producers (IFAP) as an example of cooperation between agriculture in developed and developing countries.

Questions followed each presentation and interests amongst a wide spectrum of participants centred on defending high standards for agricultural safety, both for consumers and for workers and whether there was not too much dominance from major agribusiness interests.

The second part of the conference was led by a panel of speakers. The panel included Hella Alikuru, the IUF’s African regional Coordinator, Maud Johansson of Forum Syd, a development NGO, Veronica Griffiths of the Barbados Workers Union and Sue Longley the IUF’s global agricultural coordinator.

Alikuru spoke of the critical impact that trade liberalization has had on women who make up the majority of the world’s agricultural workforce and of the world’s poor. Johansson spoke of the need to view the crisis in the widest possible way and assessed the Swedish government’s performance to date in support of the world’s poor. Griffiths focussed on the impact of trade liberalization on small developing economies and emphasized the need for fairness in the global trading system. Longley outlined the impact on workers in agriculture of the liberalization of trade, pointing to the unacceptable features of agricultural work including poor wages, dangerous working conditions and the prevalent use of child labour in the sector.

Following a number of final questions and remarks the conference moderator, Ulf Edstrom, closed the conference particularly thanking the Kommunal trade union and the Minister of Agriculture for have the foresight and determination to hold this critical conference in Sweden at this time. He pointed to the need for a concrete follow up and called upon he organizers to ensure that that would happen in the months to come.