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World food policies must change — including our own

This Business of Farming

Published on: July 1, 2008

(Click on title to read article)

This summer the world woke up and realized it couldn't keep feeding the planet with the same old outdated ag policies. And despite how efficient we believe our own agriculture to be, we all have a long way to go to make the world's ag and food infrastructure more productive, sustainable and fair. 800 million hungry mouths a day should be proof enough that we're failing.

That wake-up call came like a jolt when food prices began climbing, to as much as 40% over prices a year ago. USDA Secretary of Agriculture Ed Shafer hit a home run at the World Food Summit when he suggested a three-step approach: Get more food to the most malnourished people now, change ag policies — including barriers to biotech — so that more food can be produced over the long term, and third, establish a good trade deal that opens doors between nations.

Getting more food to hungry people now shouldn't be an issue. Countries, including our own, are opening their purse strings to help others in need.

The second goal will be tougher. What's needed is bold, pro-poor government policies to help transform outdated agricultural infrastructures. That is a huge challenge in places where government leaders aren't always looking out for their citizens.

The recent earthquake in Myanmar (Burma) is a tragic, yet typical case, as government leaders there refused to allow aid workers inside the country. U.S. Navy ships laden with relief supplies steamed away from Burma on June 5, their helicopters barred from delivering supplies by the ruling junta.

Zimbabwe, once an African breadbasket, is now decimated thanks to President Robert Mugabe, who recently suspended all humanitarian work of CARE because of allegations it sided with the political opposition party in the current election season there.

Land policies in Africa are different from country to country. Across the continent, ag lands have been decimated, in part by lack of secure property rights. In Tanzania, for example, land is owned and redistributed in accordance with customary or religious laws and land ownership is determined by clan elders, such as a village council.

Getting more production from every acre will require using new technologies, including precision techniques, better water management and yes, biotechnology. That may not sit well with some countries that use GMO scare tactics as an artificial trade barrier.

$1 trillion in trade Trade is the final piece of this puzzle, and perhaps the most important. It may shock you to learn that the amount of money being spent globally on importing food is set to top $1 trillion in 2008, thanks in part to soaring food prices.

We cannot adequately feed people without free flow of goods between countries. Throwing up barriers to trade often results in unforeseen consequences, as is the case in Argentina, where striking farmers caused havoc at the grocery stores when the ruling powers slapped controls on soybean exports. Using •food security' as an excuse for higher tariffs or to protect markets solves nothing. It also discourages production at a time when production is most needed.

We're not completely innocent in this picture. The U.S. Congress just passed a pork-ladened farm bill with trade-distorting subsidies that will only add to our reputation as hypocrites when it comes to trade reform. Will we have the political willpower to dismantle our own trade-skewing rules?

What's needed is a new multilateral trade pact in WTO that removes all export subsidies and lowers or removes direct subsidies to rich-country farmers, including our own.

Such a deal should also remove protectionist tariffs in developing countries. While those tariffs are meant to protect subsistence farmers, they often stand in the way of the creation of regional farm markets that could spur greater agricultural output and productivity.

In the big picture, U.S. citizens are blessed. We live in a country where bountiful production allows us to feed ourselves and many others around the world. Exercising wisdom, fairness and sound leadership as commodity markets right themselves will not only build confidence with our trading partners. It will also re-establish our credibility with new and existing global partners for the long-term.

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