World at 'alarming juncture' as leaders gather for FAO summit
by Gina Doggett
World leaders gathered in Rome on Monday for a UN summit on food security, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warning that the world had come to an "alarming juncture."
"For years, falling food prices and rising production lulled the world into complacency," Ban told the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), adding: "You know better than anyone how we arrived at this alarming juncture."
"Governments put off hard decisions and overlooked the need to invest in agriculture," Ban said at IFAD's new Rome headquarters on the eve of the three-day Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) summit.
"Today, we are literally paying the price," he said.
"If not handled properly, this issue could trigger a cascade of other crises -- affecting economic growth, social progress, and even political security around the world."
Participants at the High-Level Conference on World Food Security will discuss short-term solutions as well as new strategies to deal with the effects of global warming, growing demand for biofuels and a crumbling agriculture sector in much of the developing world.
Ahead of the summit, battle lines were being drawn over the causes of the global food price crisis.
The humanitarian charity Oxfam staged a protest on Monday to dramatise the effects of the rising use of biofuels, with three actors dressed as ears of corn being strangled by a petrol pump hose.
"We're hoping for structural solutions to a problem that has gone on for at least 20 years, that of finding a sustainable model of agricultural production," local Oxfam official Farida Chapman told AFP.
But Oxfam stresses that European and US biofuel policies are only one of several factors causing higher food prices.
Estimates vary on the extent to which demand for biofuels has pushed up food prices.
The International Food Policy Research Institute, based in Washington, estimates that it accounts for 30 percent of the incrase, the International Monetary Fund puts the figure at 15 percent, while the US Agriculture Department says is is under three percent.
"Really the driving factor (behind soaring food prices) is energy and increased consumption," US Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer told a news conference in Rome on Monday.
Dozens of non-governmental organisations and small farmers' groups opened a forum on Sunday to coincide with the FAO summit.
Tejo Pramano, an Indonesian Via Campesina activist, said of the summit: "If they really want to respond to the crisis, the only thing is to support the small farmer (instead of) agribusiness ... which doesn't see food as a right of the people. They raise prices as they like.
"This is a situation like war," he said.
Meanwhile the planned attendance by the Zimbabwean and Iranian presidents sparked international condemnation and protests.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith called Mugabe's presence in Rome "obscene". Britain also criticised Mugabe's rare foray out of Zimbabwe where he is fighting for his political future in an election runoff.
"This is the person who has presided over the starvation of his people. This is the person who has used food aid in a politically motivated way," Smith said.
In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said: "We think it's particularly unfortunate that (Mugabe) has decided to attend this meeting given what he has done in relation to contributing to difficulties on food supply in Zimbabwe."
There were also protests in Italy by activists, leftist politicians and Jewish groups against Mugabe and Ahmadinejad.
"It is in no way legitimate for the people of Zimbabwe to be represented by a head of state who has been disowned by the international community and who is unwanted by his own people," Sergio Marelli, Italian host of a forum on food sovereignty coinciding with the summit, told AFP.
Italy's libertarian Radical Party plans a sit-in against both leaders on Tuesday, first day of the three-day summit.