Published on Thursday, June 13, 2002 by the Associated Press
Environmentalists, Farmers Dismiss World Food Summit As A Sham
by Nicole Winfield
ROME - Environmentalists and farmers dismissed the U.N. World Food Summit as a sham Wednesday, citing the presence of only two leaders from the industrialized world and a preordained outcome many say favors U.S. interests.
Greenpeace said the conference had failed to produce any major new initiatives to fight hunger.
"They failed," said Emiliano Ezcurra of Greenpeace. "They invested millions in this summit, and one by one all the ministers on the podium recognized that they are failing" to cut hunger, he said in an interview.
To be sure, the meeting's goals were rather modest. It was called to reaffirm commitments made in 1996 and to accelerate efforts to meet them.
Dozens of environmentalist and farmer groups faced off with country delegations Wednesday at a special forum. It was their first opportunity to address the summit, though they had been meeting on the sidelines.
The United Nations hopes to lower the number of people without enough to eat from 800 million to 400 million by 2015. But the number of hungry people in the world remains the same six years after the target was set at the previous food summit in Rome.
Pat Mooney, head of the Canadian ecological and human rights group ETC, noted that even before the 1996 gathering, governments had come to Rome in 1974 and promised at a food conference to eradicate world hunger altogether.
"The conclusion is we can't afford to have many more World Food conferences," Mooney said, to applause from the audience at the forum.
Most wealthy countries, including the United States, sent agriculture ministers or similar-level officials. Britain didn't even do that, sending instead the head of the "Knowledge Sharing on Special Initiatives" branch of its department for international development.
There were few official explanations for the absences, but the general consensus was that wealthier countries didn't consider the summit a priority for their leaders. Advocacy groups also noted that a follow-up summit hadn't been foreseen so soon after the 1996 one, and was called only after the FAO realized the 1996 targets wouldn't be met.
About 80 heads of state did come, but they were almost entirely from Africa and other countries in the developing world.
Indian farming advocate Vandana Shiva said the absence of more high-level delegations from the wealthy countries "means a failure of democracy, a failure of responsibility."
"It's not that they have abandoned the food agenda, they are trying to hijack the food agenda in the wrong direction against the will of the people," said Shiva.
She was referring to efforts by the U.S. officials who did come to use the conference to promote Washington's pro-biotech agenda.
The United States, home to several major biotech corporations, hosted a biotech panel on the sidelines of the summit, announced a major biotech conference next year, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman touted the benefits of biotech in agriculture in her speech.
Many environmental and farmers groups say genetically modified seeds do nothing to increase crop yields and instead make farmers dependent on the corporations that develop and sell them.
They criticized the final document of the summit, hammered out before the meeting even began, saying governments caved to U.S. pressure to include references to the benefits of biotech.
There were also jabs that the summit was just an excuse for tourist jaunts and shopping sprees in the Eternal City.
"They come for the seven minutes (on the podium), next thing the Colosseum," said Greenpeace's Ezcurra.
On Wednesday, a motorcade of the Indonesian delegation was parked along the swank Roman shopping street, Via Condotti, with members seen inside a fashionable shoe store.
A day earlier, cars with the Republic of Congo's seal were parked in front of the Spanish Steps.
"Piano bars in the grand hotels, champagne and night clubs; in Rome, the dolce vita for delegates in the fight against hunger" read the headline in Wednesday's conservative newspaper Libero.
© 2002 The Associated Press