U.S. officials have promised to try to help boost agricultural productivity in developing countries along with ending famine and improving nutrition as part of the U.S. commitment to help reduce world hunger.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman laid out those priorities in a speech to heads of state and other officials from more than 180 nations at the World Food Summit: Five Years Later in Rome June 9-11. Veneman led the U.S. delegation to the summit.

“Widespread hunger and malnutrition exact an enormous cost in terms of human suffering and lost potential,” she said. “All members of the global community — working individually and in partnership — must significantly accelerate and more effectively focus our efforts.”

Veneman said that those efforts by the United States will be aimed at helping meet the goal set by countries participating in the 1996 World Food Summit of reducing by half the number of their people suffering from chronic hunger by 2015.

“Increasing agricultural productivity is a way to boost both food availability and access in developing countries,” she said. “Accomplishing this will require, above all, that countries adopt market-based policies that help stimulate, rather than hold back, their farming sectors.”

Worldwide, some 800 million people are food-insecure, and most of these people live in rural areas where food is produced, the secretary said. “Improving their ability to produce, both for themselves and for the market, is one of the most immediate steps we can take to reduce hunger.”

Accomplishing this will require that countries adopt market-based policies that help stimulate, rather than hold back, their farming sectors, she noted. “The starting point must be good governance and the rule of law. This means fair and transparent policies. It means policies conducive to private initiative, investment, and trade, and a commitment to broad-based economic growth.”

Pointing to the new Compact for Development and the pledge of additional funding for development announced by President Bush in March, Veneman said that the United States will build upon its long tradition of supporting programs to improve domestic and international food security.

She emphasized the president's message that funds will be used in partnership with countries that rule justly, invest in their people and promote economic freedom.

Veneman said the United States has been the world's largest food aid donor, the leading donor responding to the food crisis now facing southern Africa and the largest contributor to multilateral lending banks. That includes a new global school-feeding program now providing school meals to 9 million children in 38 countries.

“The United States supports the development and dissemination of new technologies to spur productivity and improve nutrition,” she said, “and we are funding programs to combat HIV/AIDS around the world.”

To help reduce the suffering of people in southern Africa who have been devastated by severe drought conditions, the secretary announced the release of 275,000 metric tons of wheat to be exchanged for an equal value of corn, beans, and vegetable oil through the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust.

The latter is named for the late congressmen who represented the Bootheel of Missouri until his death in 1999.

She noted that America also imports $450 billion in products from developing countries each year — more than eight times the amount these countries receive in global aid.

Besides the top three priorities listed in her speech, Veneman said the United States would also continue to work for an open trading system, using the World Trade Organization negotiations on agriculture as the starting point.

“Open markets and free exchange will do a far better job of getting food to people if governments do not place unnecessary barriers on the trading system,” she said. “We will work closely with others to insure that the trading system plays the fullest possible role in enhancing food security for the world's people.”

During a press conference, Veneman was questioned about international criticism of the new U.S. farm bill.

“I think much of it is misplaced,” she said. “There's been a lot of criticism that it increases spending when, indeed, it is roughly an equal amount of spending to what's been appropriated by Congress for spending in agriculture over the last four to five years.”

Asked about an increase in “protectionist sentiment” in the United States, she said, “I'm very puzzled by this allegation, because there is nothing in this bill which changes access to the U.S. market. There are no tariffs that are changed. It does not change the ability of countries to export to the U.S. market, and we know that the U.S. market is an important market for many of the developing countries; therefore, I think that criticism is very misplaced as well.”

Other U.S. officials acknowledged that the world's nations have a long way to go to meet the goal of reducing world hunger by 50 percent in another 12 years.

“We are very conscious of the comments made at the beginning of this conference that here we are, five years after the first world food summit, and we're not on track, that there was too much rhetoric and not enough results,” said Alan Larson, undersecretary of state for economic business and agricultural affairs.

“We share that view, and we want to focus on results, and we are concerned that a multi-year effort to sit in conference rooms around the world and define what the ‘right to food’ might mean would be a major distraction to what the real challenge is — which is to get into the fields, work with farmers in developing countries to produce the harvests that are going to overcome hunger. That's what the United States came to this conference to do, and that's what we want to do — go forward.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.