Food Crisis Summit Ducks Crucial Issues

The world food summit in Rome has come to a delayed end after some angry exchanges in the closing stages, but it ended without agreement on some of the key policy decisions now confronting governments. Franco Frattini, the foreign minister of the host nation, Italy, described the final declaration "disappointing relative to expectations" and said the text had been "watered down".

ROME - The text calls for "urgent and coordinated action to combat the negative impacts of soaring food prices on the world's most vulnerable countries and populations". It also demands more agricultural investment and immediate food aid.

On the most contentious issue - biofuels - the suggestion by an FAO working party that international standards be established to ensure biofuels were not produced at the expense of the world's hungry has been ignored. Instead there is some watered-down prose on "the challenges and opportunities posed by biofuels".

"We are convinced that in-depth studies are necessary to ensure that production and use of biofuels is sustainable", the declaration says, calling on "relevant intergovernmental organisations" to maintain an "international dialogue on biofuels in the context of food security and sustainable development needs."

In short, the dilemma has been kicked further down the road in the hope that another organisation will pick it up. Meanwhile, the US agriculture secretary, Ed Schafer has told American reporters that increasing the production of ethanol is "the right policy direction". The US seem to have conceded nothing, and corn prices have been mounting on world markets throughout the last hours of the summit.

On trade, the summit has backed the rapid conclusion of the Doha round of trade liberalisation, despite French reservations - a win for Britain and the US.

The final declaration talks about the need to "minimise the use of restrictive measures that could increase the volatility of international prices" - a disapproving reference to export bans and tariffs. Argentina, which has imposed hefty tariffs on food exports to keep domestic prices under control, bitterly opposed the use of the word "restrictive" and held up the closing session for hours in a bid to have it removed, but they ultimately went along with the text.

Despite the fact that the meeting was billed in part as addressing the "challenges of climate change", it has very little to say on that topic.

But Barbara Stocking, the director of Oxfam in the UK argued "it would be a mistake to dismiss this summit as a waste of time" pointing to pledges of $4 billion over the course of the conference to support agriculture in developing countries. She said the onus was now on the G8 to make financial commitments at next month's meeting in Japan.

(c) 2008 The Guardian

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