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June 08, 2008

Conflicting agendas of Africa, USA on display at FAO food summit

Barbara Fratelli (not her real name), works as a cleaner in the imposing clean-lined modernist building that houses the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

I met her as she was vacuuming the red carpet ahead of the talks last week. Decisions taken here could literally prove a matter of life or death for the people Barbara left behind in Africa, when she came to work in Italy 20 years ago.

"I hope they do something this time," she said. "They should. It's about time."

Barbara comes from Eritrea which, along with Ethiopia, Somalia and Libya, formed Italy's short-lived African Empire, assembled in the 1930s and dissolved in the ashes of Mussolini's Italy in World War II. Mussolini himself had been minister for Africa in the 1930s before becoming Italy's president, and the country's African empire was run from this very building, turned over to the Food and Agriculture Organization when it was set up to fund world farming in the 1950s.

It was a far more recent colonial experience that crashed across the conference floor as Robert Mugabe stole the show with a vintage stream of paranoid rhetoric on Tuesday. His policies have pushed Zimbabwean inflation beyond what would be thought possible. And, although four million people are reported to be starving, he expelled a major aid organisation this week, saying that food aid is a conspiracy to bring him down. He said it was all the fault of what he called "Zimbabwe's former colonial master," the UK, trying to effect regime change in its wrath over his compulsory seizure of land from white farmers.

The Secretary of State for International Development, Douglas Alexander, went further than any other politician here in condemnation, calling Mr Mugabe's presence at the conference "obscene."

Amid these reminders of old empires, the unacknowledged new world empire - that of the USA - is flexing its muscles on the food issue.

The biggest divisions at the Rome conference are over two issues - genetically modified crops and biofuels - and, on both, the US stands on the side of the new technologies. It believes GM food to be safe and is subsidising the planting of biofuel crops.

Africa's resistance to growing GM food is in large part led by resistance in Europe. If African countries cannot export food to Europe, then they want no part of the new technology. But that is not the whole story.

One of the most hi-tech GM laboratories in the world is in Uganda. When I visited it, the technicians were looking for a cure for a blight called "banana wilt," which devastates growth of the large green bananas that are a big source of protein in East Africa.

In a laboratory, under bright artificial sunlight, thousands of tiny banana trees were being injected and dissected by white-coated lab assistants, who were all Ugandan, as was the management. But the funding was all from the USA, rolling out its technology where it can.

In Rome, Kenya's agriculture minister told me that this was the kind of technology that Africa needs. But it comes with strings attached. GM crops require fertilisers and other specialised products to keep them going and they all come from the USA. And crops that need planting every year, like wheat and rice, need to have all of their seed replaced annually by new seed and that too comes from the USA.

That would be a major change in practice for small farmers, who up to now have always retained part of their harvest to replant during the following season.

A UN scientific examination of the way forward in agriculture earlier this year concluded that, where new technology is tried, it needs to be both sustainable and appropriate, building on what

With land scarce, food is increasingly competing against biofuels, once thought to be a magic solution to reducing the world's dependence on oil and coal, but now causing more questions to be asked, because of the amount of energy needed to convert the plants to fuel. Three-quarters of the increase in US maize production last year went on biofuels.

And the growth in planting crops for biofuels worldwide last year has been identified by the report on the table at the Rome conference as one of the main causes of the runaway rise in food prices during the first 3 months of this year. African countries are asking why their hungry people are having to pay more for food when the USA is subsidising growth of crops for biofuels.

Within 10 years, 40% of US maize production will go on biofuels.

The talks last were taking place amid the ruins of another empire, that of ancient Rome, which began its decline and fall when the demand for grain to feed a city of more than a million people became impossible to sustain.

Finding a solution to the problem of feeding nine billion people - the estimated peak of world population by the middle of this century - will take more than the dynamism of empires to achieve.

Perhaps it is only the United Nations, established and meeting last week amid the ghosts of old empires, that can make the difference.


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