NGOs: 'Mini-Ministerial Meeting Should Change WTO Tack on Food,' Promote Food Sovereignty

Indian farmers hold on to a railing as they watch their fellow farmers take out a protest rally against World Trade Organization (WTO) in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009. Trade officials from 35 countries are meeting in New Delhi for a WTO informal Ministerial meeting being hosted by India. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)

NGOs: 'Mini-Ministerial Meeting Should Change WTO Tack on Food,' Promote Food Sovereignty

GENEVA - A group of 125 non-governmental organisations from 50 countries is calling on the governments participating in the mini-ministerial trade talks in India over the next two days to reject the further liberalisation of food and rather promote policies that will achieve food security and rural development and safeguard farmers' livelihoods.

The organisations, of which 13 are in Africa, argue in a letter to the 36 countries attending the mini-ministerial meeting that the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) policies have resulted in "a failed global agricultural system including extremely volatile commodities markets, a lack of global access to nutritious and affordable food, an increase in hunger, and the erosion of farmers' incomes.

"These policies have culminated in the global food crisis we face today, where about 30,000 people die every day of poverty related causes, many due to malnutrition and hunger. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) estimates that over one billion people are now going hungry, with about 150 million more people experiencing hunger as a result of the current food crisis," expound the organisations.

The new commerce minister of India, Anand Sharma, convened the conference taking place today and tomorrow in New Delhi in another effort to speed-up the fraught negotiations of the Doha Development Round before the seventh WTO ministerial meeting scheduled for the end of November in Geneva.

Of the 36 countries that have been invited, only five are African: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

The discussion will focus on the two main issues that are paralysing the Round: agriculture and industrial goods, technically known as NAMA or non-agricultural market access.

"It is the first mini-ministerial meeting held in a developing country," says Linu Mathew Philip from the Centre for Trade and Development (CENTAD) in New Delhi. "It is happening in the context of a new political mandate in both the U.S. and India. It comes at a time when the world is reeling from the global recession. But there is pessimism since many issues still remain unaddressed."

The signatories to the letter argue that the WTO talks at the moment do not constitute a "development round" and that greater trade liberalisation would not help poor countries recover from the economic and food crisis.

They point out that the deregulation of trade in agriculture has led to the abolition of commodities boards that helped to manage supply and to their replacement by volatile and speculative commodity markets.

Moreover, the global agricultural system allows rich countries to subsidise their farmers. The subsidised products flow into developing countries' markets, "representing unfair competition to local farmers", destroying livelihoods and increasing hunger.

The NGOs point out that even where export subsidy limits exist, the U.S. and the EU regularly violate them and dump their agricultural products on developing countries' markets, ruining farming communities.

Another serious problem, according to the NGOs, lies in the global trading system that does not allow developing countries to protect and support local food production for domestic consumption. Despite this having caused the food crisis and the erosion of farmers' income, rich countries are still pushing Southern ones to open up their markets, while refusing to reduce the subsidies they provide to their own agribusiness exports.

A coalition of more than 46 countries, called the G33, is organising the resistance to these unjust policies and activities within the WTO: they are lobbying for so-called special products and special safeguards mechanisms that would allow developing countries to adopt protective measures in times of rising imports or crisis.

"Unity among these countries - supported by an even larger coalition of more than 100 countries - is an essential step towards improving the current agricultural trade system" stress the signatories. But this is precisely what rich countries don't want, leading to the stalling of the Doha Round in July 2008.

Another coalition of NGOs, led by Third World Network and Focus on the Global South, warns that, "in the latest drafts (of the negotiating text), provisions intended to protect farmer's livelihoods such as 'special products' and 'special safeguard mechanisms' have been rendered ineffective". This coalition organised a strategy meeting in New Delhi on Sep 2, the day before the mini-ministerial conference.

For the letter signatories, the solution lies in food sovereignty and in the possibility for developing countries to exempt a large number of products from global trade when they are essential for food security, rural development and farmers' livelihoods.

They are also calling for "a global trading system that disciplines corporate behaviour", an end to dumping and an immediate stop to developed countries' export subsidies in all their forms - especially rich country cotton subsidies that damage West African producers.

These NGOs also want new regulations on the market, such as new limits on speculation in commodity markets, as many African countries have proposed to the WTO.

As for the non-agriculture negotiations, which include fisheries, other natural resources and industrial products, "the tariff reductions and other demands will force developing countries to cut their actual customs duties in some instances and offer access to their markets to the 153 WTO member countries", warn Focus on the Global South and Third World Network.

"This will have an enormous impact on our organised and unorganised sectors and the future of our manufacturing and fisheries sectors. At a time when (India) is reeling from the financial and agrarian crisis, Minister Sharma's haste in concluding the Doha talks is unacceptable" they argue.

These NGOs say that in the initial years of the Doha Round (launched in 2001) India took a progressive stance, defending its own national interest as well as developing world concerns.

"But since the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) Government assumed power in 2004, there has been a steady downward spiral in India's positions on the key areas under negotiation - agriculture, industrial tariffs, services and intellectual property. The UPA government should be pressurised by agriculture groups, trade unions and social movements to protect the rights of farmers and all workers."

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