Postcard from…the UN

For the first time in history, African farmers have directly addressed the UN General Assembly. Ndiogou Fall, the president of the Network of West African Peasant and Agricultural Producers’ Organizations (ROPPA), and Elisabeth Atangana, who heads the Federation of Peasant Organizations of Central Africa, spoke on behalf of the people most directly and disastrously affected by the current food crisis.

“The food crisis in Africa is the logical result of three decades of botched policies that have severely penalized the millions of family farmers who are the backbone of our continent’s economy and the custodians of its environment,” they said in a joint statement. “The liberal dogma introduced first by the World Bank and the IMF and later reinforced by the WTO and bilateral free trade agreements has pushed our governments to abolish support services for Africa’s producers while opening our markets to the unfair competition of subsidized food products from abroad.”

The current rise in food prices has brought hungry urban dwellers to the streets in riots in more than 40 countries over the past months, more than half of them in Africa. But, as Ndiogou Fall points out, “the worst sufferers are the silent, scattered rural dwellers, some 70% of Africa’s population and the majority of the region’s poor.”

The food price rise could represent an opportunity for small-scale food producers who have been penalized for years by low commodity prices if the benefits reach them. This is not what is happening today. On the contrary, it is the corporate players in the global food chain who are making a killing. Big international grain traders have taken stock off the market waiting for prices to rise. Cargill reported a 36% increase in profits in 2007 as compared with 2006 while ADM, another trading giant, managed a 67% rise. Multinational input producers and supermarket chains are also doing fine. The only losers are the food producers.

And not only in Africa. In the United States, the National Farmers’ Union reports, producers receive only 20 cents of every dollar that consumers spend on food. Financial speculation has also contributed to the upward and erratic spiral of food prices. Yet, as hedge fund manager Michael Masters testified before Congress, while the U.S. government has proved willing to “abandon free market beliefs” when it comes to protecting the firms that are caught up in the current financial crisis, it has stuck to its free trade guns in the food price arena and refused to take action “when it comes to protecting the citizens of the world from excessive speculation in the commodities markets.”

At the UN, Ndiogou Fall and Elisabeth Atangana not only denounced policies and actors that violate the right to food, but also suggested what it would take to turn the food crisis to advantage. In the short term, African farmers need access to quality seeds and subsidized credit (currently staked at untenable rates of up to 24%) and rapid action to protect local markets so that producers are able to sell their crops. In the medium and long term, African governments need to reinstate retooled versions of the mechanisms for support for food production and equitable distribution which were dismantled by liberal policies and formulate coherent agricultural policies adapted to the African situation.

Nora McKeon is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and a policy advisor on civil society relations at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.