If you want to see a hideous sight in the next few days, head for Rome where the second World Food Summit will be taking place. Held over from last year following September 11, it will feature 60 heads of state and thousands of bureaucrats and politicians. Even as they pledge yet again to feed the 800 million people who go hungry every year, they will be tucking into the world's finest produce.
Parma hams, wild salmon and canapes are a world away from the roots and berries that S, a Malawian woman I met last month, will be eating this week. She, like tens of thousands of people in southern Africa, has completely run out of food through no fault of her own; her life, from now until next April at the earliest, depends on northern governments and charities sending their surplus food across the world. The UN believes that 11 million people now face severe malnutrition if not starvation in the region. They say four million tons of grain will be needed but so far governments have pledged less than 100,000 tons Thousands have already died, tens of thousands more inevitably will.
The global food situation has barely improved since 1996 when the first food summit was held and politicians hollowly pledged to halve the proportion of hungry people by 2015. If present trends continue, 122 million people will have died of hunger-related diseases by then, and the UN admits it will take 60 years to reach even that modest target. Governments, in short, have utterly failed to address one of the world's greatest scandals.
The first paradox is that the world has never grown so much food; there is no overall scarcity and food has seldom been so cheap. The simple equation in the politics of food today is that hunger equals poverty. What we see now is the relatively new phenomenon of increasing hunger amid ever-greater plenty. Just because a country produces more food does not mean it has no malnourished people. The US grows 40% more food than it needs, yet 26 million Americans need handouts. India's grain silos have been bursting for the past five years and a record surplus of 59 million tons has been built up, yet almost half of all Indian children are undernourished, tens of millions of people go hungry and many hundreds of poor farmers have committed suicide.
The second paradox is that farmers in poor countries are, in this time of global plenty, abandoning agriculture because they just cannot compete with the heavily subsidized foods which are flooding into their countries on the back of world trade rules and IMF conditions that force them to open up their markets.
Farmers in Indonesia have been queuing to sell their rice even as the government imports it from Vietnam. In Pakistan, many farmers have reportedly burnt their harvests in desperation because the prices they can command are too low. The local rice market in Ghana has collapsed under US and Thai imports.
From Haiti to Mexico and Mozambique to Tanzania, small farmers are selling up, unable to compete with the barons of world agriculture and unable to take advantage of the increasingly global trade in food. The US has recently introduced a farm bill which will increase subsidies to the largest agri-businesses by $18bn a year for 10 years. The effect this will have on third world farmers in incalculable.
It is easy to foresee the slanging match which will take place in Rome. Much of the talk will be how to "feed the world" and increase food production; the specter of more than two billion more people to feed within 30 years will be raised and out will come all the arguments for miracle GM technologies and the further intensification of farming.
Rich countries will be admonished for not having increased international or domestic resources for agriculture in the past five years and for having presided over a steep decline in official aid for farming in poor countries. Some of the most food- insecure countries will in turn be accused of governing badly and doing little to help their people while at the same time increasing their military expenditures.
But all this will be peripheral to the main agenda which is being pushed massively in all global talks these days, and which led directly to last week's collapse in Bali of the final meeting before the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development.
The US, EU and other OECD countries will ruthlessly use Rome to push the case for further and faster economic liberalization of markets. When it comes to food, this means countries are being forced to surrender their food security, to sell off their emergency stocks and to dismantle the state marketing boards which traditionally control prices in times of need.
What will not be up for discussion in Rome, at least in the main meeting, will be the alternative to the present system which has led to this mess. Governments will pay little attention to the potential of fairer trading systems. No commitment will be made to remove food and agriculture from the World Trade Organization or to end the dumping of cheap food in poor countries which undermines small farmers and local markets.
No attempt will be made to end the trading cartels which dominate the world food market and no money will be pledged to stimulate local food production. Traditional, publicly funded plant breeding techniques will continue to be starved of cash. The right to food will not be addressed and the dirty secret that rich countries profit handsomely from the daily hunger of hundreds of millions of people will be ignored.
But the delegates might like to chew on one of the thousands of initiatives which are taking place around the world to help the poor help themselves. In northern Darfur, one of the most drought-prone areas of Sudan, 14,000 households have learned to increase the yields of a wide range of crops and vegetables just by collecting water in a different way and by introducing simple donkey ploughs and better manuring techniques.
Households have doubled the area they farm and yields have exceeded traditional cultivation methods by up to 400%, reports the Inter-mediate Technology Development Group. It did not take much money, it did not need expensive new technologies or any global agreement, just a little education, a recognition that hunger is caused by poverty and a commitment to help the poor, rather than the rich.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002