The billion-dollars-a-day subsidies that have turned farmers in the rich world into behemoths is helping to cripple their counterparts in developing countries, food experts warned at the Earth Summit.
One of the fathers of the so-called Green Revolution, whose bounty has saved
hundreds of millions of lives, M.S. Swaminathan, told delegates that the farming
world was being dangerously polarized into two cultures.
The first, in North America and Western Europe, was "largely one of agribusiness" with access to lavish subsidies, technology and capital; the other, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, was small-scale personal farms.
"One is production by the masses, the other is mass production," he said.
Swaminathan, an Indian who earned the first
World Food Prize for his work in high-yield crops, said that small-scale farmers
in developing countries struggled with problems of access to credit and finding
a secure market to sell their crops in addition to worsening soil erosion and
looming climate change.
But helping them, he said, would be the smartest way to improve hundreds of millions of lives.
"Agricultural production is the best safety net against poverty and hunger in most developing countries," he said.
Payouts for food producers have been blamed for wrecking potential markets in North America, Europe and Japan for small farmers in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
And subsidies to export big grain crops such as wheat and corn can also destroy livelihoods in small countries, because they are sometimes sold at below the local cost price.
According to the World Bank, the subsidies total nearly a billion dollars a day, a situation it blasts as "untenable" both for rich and poor countries alike.
But curbing the subventions has been a tremendous task, given the political firepower of the farming lobbies in the European Union and United States.
Both trade powers are fighting attempts by developing countries for a draft action plan being crafted at the Earth Summit to include detailed commitments for phasing out "trade-distorting" farm subsidies.
Pedro Sanchez, an agriculture professor at Berkeley University, San Francisco,
and former director of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry in
Nairobi, said the Earth Summit faced "a paradox".
"We're subsiding farmers in the North to the tune of one billion dollars a
day to preserve some very valid goals like their way of life, while we are not
subsidizing to any measurable extent the hungry and the poor farmers in the developing
"Can we take a piece of this billion dollars a day that European and North American farmers a day are getting, maybe five percent or so, perhaps on a voluntary basis, and put it to work on ending hunger and poverty in the developing world?"
Sanchez said the focus on hunger had to be on helping farmers in Africa, by
promoting diversified crops "that rich people want to buy," reducing the costs
of fertilizer and promoting root plants that take nitrogen from the air and fix
it in the soil.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Tuesday estimated that 16
billion dollars were needed annually to mobilize resources to help farmers in
The burden could be shared equally by rich and poor nations, it suggested.
"For the developed countries, the amount of eight billion dollars is less than they transfer to their own agriculture every 10 days," noted FAO Assistant Director General Hartwig de Haen.
The Johannesburg conference is a follow-up to the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 which produced 2,500 recommendations for protecting the environment -- most of which have gathered dust.
At the core of this summit is a 71-page raft of action plans to meet the Rio goals, as well as aims to provide water, sewage and electricity to two billion of the world's poorest people. The document is non-binding but is important because it will mould the environmental agenda for the next decade.
The Earth has a lengthening list of environmental problems, while its human population now stands at more than six billion and could reach eight billion by 2025.
Vanishing species, deforestation, overfished seas, soil erosion, water pollution
and climate change are only a few of the problems that cause some experts to wonder
if the planet's resources are close to breaking point.
© Copyright 2002 AFP