Benedict offers Rome summit food for thought

The UN-sponsored World Summit on Food Security in Rome ended yesterday leaving many participants frustrated with the lack of progress on food security goals. Few representatives from the developed world even bothered to attend the meeting. The Nov. 16-18 conference, hosted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, gathered delegates from around the world allegedly to find concrete solutions to end hunger and malnutrition and discuss practical strategies aimed at stabilizing food prices after last year's disastrous and deadly escalation in basic commodity prices. Many attendees suggested the summit fell far from achieving such goals.

As the planet plods into the 21st century and into an era of climate change uncertainty and population concentrations in the poorest regions of the world, concerns are growing around overall agricultural production, which must be improved as much as 70 percent by 2050, and the environmental and human impact of existing ag-methods. According to the FAO, more than 1 billion people are undernourished and one child dies every six seconds because of malnutrition.

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Some food security advocates were hoping the summit would be used to elevate and specify hunger and production goals—for example, curtailing First World subsidies, formally committing the UN member states to eradicating global hunger completely by 2025 and increasing aid to developing world farmers to $44 billion annually. Instead vague assurances to “substantially increase” agriculture aid were made, and the draft resolution merely restated the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving world hunger by 2015 and lamely called eradicating hunger “at the earliest possible date.”

Representatives from Catholic international development agencies CIDSE and Caritas Internationalis were particularly critical of the conference outcome. A joint Nov. 16 statement (issued that is before the actual end of the conference but in response to an "outcome declaration" that was released as the summit began. Odd that.) read: "The World Food Summit has failed to produce a concrete agenda for moving away from business as usual, even as the number of hungry in the world continues to rise."

"The outcome Declaration has brought nothing concrete, and many of its statements are open to wide and often concerning interpretations," complained Alicia Kolmans, from CIDSE's German member, Misereor. 

And Bob van Dillen from Cordaid, the Dutch member of the Caritas and CIDSE networks, said, "The Declaration reaffirms the need to invest in small-scale agriculture, but there are no concrete proposals how this should best be done, nor have leaders committed to mobilising the necessary financial commitments within the next five years." 

Michael O' Brien from Trocaire, the Irish member of the CIDSE and Caritas networks, noted, "There is a clear consensus . . . that the liberalisation agenda promoted over the last decades by the World Bank and other actors has categorically failed, and that there is a real need to strengthen farmer's involvement in policy making and implementation."

Though the only Western head of state who made it to the summit was host-nation's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Pope Benedict XVI managed to stop by to address the conference. They got an earful from the pope: "Hunger is the most cruel and concrete sign of poverty," he said. "Opulence and waste are no longer acceptable when the tragedy of hunger is assuming ever greater proportions.

"Norms, legislation, development plans and investments are not enough, however; what is needed is a change in the lifestyles of individuals and communities, in habits of consumption and in perceptions of what is genuinely needed," Pope Benedict said.

The pope called for greater action in creating "a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water" and argued that countries must "oppose those forms of aid that do grave damage to the agricultural sector, those approaches to food production that are geared solely towards consumption and lack a wider perspective, and especially greed, which causes speculation to rear its head even in the marketing of cereals, as if food were to be treated just like any other commodity."

Certainly all worthy "outcome declarations" for Summit 2010.

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