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World Leaders Pledge to Ease Food Crisis After Political Squabbling

BY Admin  June 5, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST

Food vendor in South Africa; AP photo

After three days of wrangling, delegates from about 180 countries approved a declaration resolving to ease the hunger threatening one billion people by stepping up investment in agriculture in hopes of lowering food prices.

The summit eventually managed to strike a balance on the contentious issue of biofuels, recognizing that there are both “challenges and opportunities” in using food for fuel.

A few Latin American countries raised strong objections to parts of the declaration.

Cuba was disappointed the document didn’t criticize the long-standing U.S. embargo against the Communist-ruled island nation. Argentina was unhappy farm subsidies in the U.S., European Union and other Western food-producers weren’t blamed for a major role in driving up prices.

The declaration called for swift help for farmers in poor countries who need seed and fertilizers in time for the approaching planting season.

“We took the measure of the problem of hunger in the world correctly,” said Jacques Diouf, head of the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, according to the Associated Press.

Diouf’s organization called the meeting to seek ways to secure food supplies in the face of poor harvests, rising fuel costs and rising demand, especially from rapidly developing Asian countries.

Commodity prices have doubled over past few years and put 100 million people at risk of joining the 850 million already going hungry, according to the World Bank.

“If nothing else, nations came together to recognize the problem,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer told Reuters.

What was supposed to be an emergency conference on food shortages, climate change and energy turned into a global podium for powerful politicians to grandstand mostly about economic issues in their own countries and political priorities, the New York Times reported.

“Everyone complained about other people’s protectionism – and defended their own,” Andrew Martin and Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote.

Many representatives of poorer countries expressed frustration at the tenor of the meeting.

“We believe the problem is much more political than everything else,” Walter Poveda Ricaurte, agriculture minister of Ecuador, told the Times. “We have to differentiate between the countries who are really affected by the food crisis and those who are seeing it as an economic opportunity.”

Despite repeated urgings at the summit to stop talking about hunger and take action, it was the wording of the final document that threatened to undermine the talks’ success.

Biofuels were the most contentious issue at the summit, with the United States and Brazil defending their use of maize and sugarcane, respectively, to produce fuel. Washington acknowledges this contributes to food inflation, but says the impact is marginal.

The wrangling over diplomatic language came after U.N. officials announced almost $3 billion of new aid to help ease the food crisis.