Govt’s shameful exploitation of the world’s starving

Capitalist growth based on corporate agriculture will never be the answer to food security for the world’s poor.

It says a lot for New Zealand’s commitment to helping solve the world food crisis that we sent Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton with a $7 million cheque to the food crisis summit in Rome last week.

In doing so, New Zealand made only a token gesture to address the enormous problem of one billion people going to bed hungry every day. More worryingly, we are telling the world that we believe the underlying problem is agricultural subsidies and tariffs.

The Government reasons that if all countries dropped agricultural protections then the most efficient food producers would survive and produce more food at a lower price.

New Zealand will benefit because we will have better access to overseas markets for our meat and dairy products. Anderton is right to point to agricultural subsidies in Europe and the United States as part of the problem because they are based on production _ the more production the greater the subsidy.

The lion’s share of these subsidies (as much as 90 per cent in some cases) goes to agricultural businesses rather than small farmers producing for local markets. The outcome is huge quantities of subsidised food from Europe and the US being dumped onto markets in developing countries to undercut and destroy local food production.

There is no point giving seeds to farmers in developing countries, as suggested at the Rome gathering, when their efforts will be undercut by subsidised imports from corporate farm owners in Europe and the US.

If Europe and the US regeared their subsidies so they were provided only for small farmers producing for local markets there would be benefits all around. Rural communities, lifestyles and environments would be protected while agribusinesses would not be able to undercut and destroy food production in developing countries.

New Zealand should take the same approach to agricultural production for our local market. Rather than paying inflated world prices we would have the cheapest dairy and meat products in the world. And why not?

But it is tariffs which are New Zealand’s main target and here Anderton comes unstuck. By arguing for their removal, Anderton is trying to screw the scrum in our favour. It’s a one-eyed, opportunistic view of a human catastrophe delivered in a self-righteously smug manner.

The developing countries which are faring best in the current crisis are those who have protected and nurtured their local food production with tariffs to keep imported food in the background.

Uganda is a good example. Tariffs on imported rice have stimulated local rice production by 2.5 times since 2004, so that local rice prices are similar to what they were a year ago while prices elsewhere have more than doubled.

Most people in developing countries typically spend up to 80% of their income on food, so they are much more vulnerable to price increases than the rest of humanity. So when food prices are set in Anderton’s global free market the 3.5 million children who die from malnutrition each year can’t afford the prices paid by businesses wanting grain for animal feed or biofuel production.

Like Anderton, our Minister of Trade, Phil Goff, also saw the Rome gathering as an opportunity to push a partisan policy on behalf of Fonterra. Fresh from an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting in Peru, Goff said importantly that the food crisis is putting pressure on governments to move ahead with free-trade discussions in the so-called Doha round of World Trade Organisation talks.

This translates as extending the very policies which have deepened the food crisis in the first place. Capitalist growth based on corporate agriculture will never be the answer to food security for the world’s poor.

The solutions will always be around policies which stimulate local food production. These include tariffs on imported food in developing countries, assistance to small farmers producing for local consumption and abandoning subsidies for exported food from the US, Europe and Asia.

Also trying to divert attention from the real problems is the US. Some 100 million tons of US grain, subsidised to the tune of $7 billion, will be diverted from food to biofuel production this year. Trying to get off the hook the US argues that biofuels are responsible for just 3% of the rise in grain prices, but more credible estimates put the figure at 30%.

Let’s put starving kids ahead of SUV drivers suffering climate guilt and abandon this eco-myth.

In her book Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein describes how the corporate world and their political allies use crises to extend their control of economic resources and economic policies for their own benefit.

It’s a disgrace to see Anderton and Goff using the suffering of the world’s poorest citizens to do the same thing.