Rory Carroll in Rome
Friday June 14, 2002
A world food summit ended in recrimination yesterday when it was branded a waste of time for everyone except the United States, which successfully sold genetically modified crops as a solution to famine.
The UN denied that the exercise in the Italian capital had been ineffective, despite the event being snubbed by western governments, complaints from leaders of developing countries and disagreements on strategies to avoid malnutrition and famine.
Environmental and agricultural groups accused the US of steamrollering the summit into approving biotechnology, after robust lobbying by Washington.
"The US played very hard and succeeded. They now have the moral authority to use genetically modified food for aid purposes," said Fernando Almansa of Oxfam.
He hoped the defeat would shock opponents of GM food into mobilising for the UN summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg in August.
The US delegation was led by the agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, and made no secret that its priority was to promote the wider use of biotechnology, an industry dominated by American companies.
"Biotechnology has tremendous potential to develop products that can be more suited to areas of the world where there is persistent hunger," Ms Veneman said. "There is no food safety issue whatsoever."
Another delegate was more forthright: "We're here to sell biotech, and that's what we've done."
Advocates say GM crops with improved yields, resistance to drought and tolerance of salt could ease food shortages in stricken areas. But critics say it could destroy biodiversity and force poor farmers to buy seeds from US corporations.
Fred Kalibwani, an ecology activist from a Zimbabwe-based non-governmental organisation, said that the patented GM seeds in effect placed food security in the hands of a few corporations. "This will be tragic for Africa in the next few years," he said.
Jacques Diouf, director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation which hosted the summit, said the event was a success because it reaffirmed the pledge of a 1996 food summit to halve world hunger by 2015.
But little headway has been made in the past six years: more than 800 million people are still hungry, famine is looming in southern Africa and a request for an extra [pounds]16bn each year fell flat.
Some 181 countries were represented, but of the 74 heads of state or government, only two were from the west. South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, accused the west of indifference.
Clare Short, Britain's secretary of state for international development, said the summit was a waste of time, and the EU's aid commissioner, Poul Nielson, accused organisers of trying to build an empire rather than tackling the real problem of hunger.
Other delegations expressed frustration they were unable to address western leaders about the damage their tariffs inflict on poor farmers.
Some UN officials said the [pounds]1.6m cost of the event would have been better spent on grain for the poor.