Why do more than 800 million people still go hungry in a world marked by incredible affluence? 180 nations are gathering in Rome from June 10 to 13 to address just that question at the “World Food Summit: Five Years Later” meeting. At the 1996 World Food Summit, also held in Rome, 185 nations signed a commitment to cut the number of hungry people in half by 2015. There, Cuban President Fidel Castro made waves–echoing the feelings of many–when he called that goal “shameful” for its abandonment of any notion of eliminating hunger. Subsequent trends have been more shameful still.

The current Summit was called by the United Nations to examine why hunger persists despite the 1996 Plan of Action. Progress has lagged by at least 60% behind the goals for the first five years, and today conditions are worsening in much of the world. Without a drastic reorientation of policies, it will be impossible to meet the 2015 goal, and hunger may actually increase. While official documents prepared for the meeting decry a “lack of will” and call for “more resources” to be directed at reducing hunger, the fact is that more fundamental changes are needed.

Research carried out by our Institute reveals that since 1996, governments have presided over a set of policies that have conspired to undercut peasant, small and family farmers, and farm cooperatives in nations both North and South. These policies have included runaway trade liberalization, pitting family farmers in the Third World against the subsidized corporate farms in the North (witness the recent U.S. Farm Bill), forcing Third World countries to eliminate price supports and subsidies for food producers, the privatization of credit, the excessive promotion of exports to the detriment of food crops, the patenting of crop genetic resources by corporations who charge farmers for their use, and a bias in agricultural research toward expensive and questionable technologies like genetic engineering while virtually ignoring pro-poor alternatives like organic farming and agroecology.

Increasingly, poor farmers find that credit is inadequate or too expensive to cover their rising production costs, buyers of their crops are more scarce and monopolistic than ever, and prices are too low to cover credit and production costs. The net result has been a significant and continued deterioration in poor farmers’ access to land, as they are forced to sell land they own, cannot afford land rentals, or lose land by defaulting on loans.

The worst hunger in the world is found in rural areas, where the landless are the poorest of the poor, yet governments have dragged their feet in implementing already existing land reform and land re-distribution policies, and have resisted efforts–sometimes using force–by people’s organizations and landless movements, to push the implementation of these policies. These same governments have stood by as land has increasingly been turned into a commercial asset out of reach for the poor, and watched passively as business interests–both agricultural (i.e. plantations) and non-agricultural (i.e. petroleum exploration)–have encroached on communal and public lands, and on the territories of indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, governments have done nothing while agricultural commodity chains become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few transnational corporations who, by virtue of their near-monopoly status, are increasingly setting costs and prices unfavorable to farmers, putting all, especially the poorest, in an untenable cost-price squeeze, thus encouraging the massive abandonment of agriculture and migration to urban slums.

While governments seem blind to the ways their policies enforce hunger and impoverishment for hundreds of millions of people, others see this harsh reality with clarity. Hundreds of farmers’ movements and nongovernmental organizations have come to Rome from around the world to hold their own Forum–the “World Forum on Food Sovereignty”–in parallel with the official Summit.

They demand that governments take agriculture out of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which forces countries to open their borders to the cheap, dumped food imports that drive their own farmers out of business, off the land, and into hunger. They call for true land reform, to put good quality land in the hands of those who would sow it, rather than those who can afford to buy it. They demand that the fundamental right to food–recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–be made a reality by the enforcement of what they call “food sovereignty,” which refers to the rights of peasants and family farmers to grow food for their own nations, and rights of poor consumers to enough to eat. These demands, unlike the weak official calls for “will” and “money,” do get at the root cause of persistent hunger, and should be endorsed by all caring people.