ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 08, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 54
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Reaping the whirlwind

For thousands of years, agriculture and especially paddy farming have formed not only the backbone of Sri Lanka's economy, but also have become part of our very culture and civilization. So vital was this sector that a famous author writing about Sri Lanka's farmer immortalized the farmer by saying that when the mud washed off his back, he was fit to be a king.

Yet, something has gone wrong terribly somewhere, especially during the past three decades of the wholesale market economy and its emphasis on market forces and urbanization. So grave is the crisis that President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself decided to attend the Food and Agriculture Organisation's summit in Rome last week to work out urgent measures to face the world food crisis with a staggering 900 million people known to going hungry everyday in varying degrees of deprivation, dehumanization or degradation.

With fuel prices soaring to almost 140 dollars a barrel on Friday, Sri Lanka appears to be facing famine or even food riots as the President spoke at the food summit and world leaders vowed on Thursday to halve the global hunger by 2015 and take urgent action over the global food crisis, but only after the summit went into extra time if not fighting time as arguments continued over the final declaration and contentious issues such as the use of food for fuel or biofuel.

At the Rome gathering attended by some 90 world leaders and thousands of top officials, they at least agreed that food must not be used as a political or economic weapon. But the final declaration came under heavy fire even before its seeds could even be planted, let alone waiting to see what kind of a harvest it would produce. In Warsaw, the world's farmers ploughed into the Rome summit, saying they were bypassed or undermined. The final declaration of the Rome summit reflected a crucial gap in addressing the crisis at its most basic level, the leader of a global farmers' group said in Poland's capital on Friday.

"It's a reflection of how disconnected and dis-linked our multilateral agencies are, from the situation on the ground," Ajay Vashee, the newly-elected head of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP) said.

Few if any would disagree with the IFAP's message that the world food crisis is the result of decades of underinvestment in and neglect of the agricultural sector, particularly in the developing world. The crisis is also a wake-up call for developing nations to turn subsistence farmers into agricultural entrepreneurs able to feed growing populations, it said in a measure that is not only relevant but vitally important for Sri Lanka, where rice prices and shortages have reached unprecedented proportions not only due to unexpectedly heavy rain but also due to bad or muddled management.

Among other measures, the farmers' federation urged developing states like Sri Lanka to invest in their farm sectors, build commodity supply chains to help small farmers process and market goods as well as to implement risk-management schemes counter-balancing exposure on the free market in an era of ever-greater weather-related losses. Sri Lanka needs to hear this message, believe it, possess it and most importantly, implement it.

According to some delegates, there are a lot of fingers in the till between the farmer and the consumer. "It's not a question of choosing between food and fuel. The world has no shortage of agricultural land to produce either, but it has been short of agricultural investment for a long time," they said in comments that Sri Lanka needs to take seriously.

The Rome summit was also slammed by the United Nations expert on the right to food. He expressed regret that the issue of "power imbalances" between large corporations and farmers was not addressed at the summit. Olivier De Schutter, who is the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, also said smallhold farmers faced "large corporations which have a very concentrated market power both at the ends of the chain and the middle of the chain".

Farmers need to buy their seeds, fertilisers and pesticides from a relatively small number of major corporations to produce their crops. As these products are often protected by intellectual property, farmers have little say over prices. When the farmers produce crops, they face again large corporations which buy these crops at prices they basically again dictate, said De Schutter.

"Prices here are not a result of supply and demand, they are the result of the very unequal bargaining power of these actors in the food production and distribution chain," he warned amidst a Sri Lankan crisis where tens of thousands of farmers are being thrown in to mudholes of poverty while huge trans-nationals use sophisticated means, like golden rice, to reap the greater harvest from our paddy fields or agriculture sector.

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