All agree there is a food crisis. But the argument is how to deal with it

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The Independent Online

Inside the high concrete walls of the headquarters of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome there is a war going on.

Everyone agrees there is a food crisis. Yesterday, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France put it succinctly. "We are in the 21st century. We know we are capable of feeding the planet. And yet, every 30 seconds, a baby dies of hunger. Every day, 25,000 human beings lose their lives from malnutrition. Every day, more than 850 million people suffer from hunger. We cannot accept this any more."

But that is where the consensus finishes. When it comes to solutions, the split is total. On the one hand, the neo-liberals maintain the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund medicine – trade liberalisation, structural adjustment programmes and food aid-dumping – was the right medicine, just not delivered in sufficient quantities. Agriculture needs to be brought more thoroughly into the globalised economy, they argue, with GM crops to bring a new green revolution.

On the other side are those who say that what the world has been doing – and not doing – is precisely the problem. A dramatic turnaround is required.

Robert Mugabe succeeded in turning the Zimbabwean bread basket into a basket case in a few short years by encouraging so-called "war veterans" to evict the white farmers in favour of party cronies. But the policies of the IMF in a country such as Haiti have had a similar effect, they say. "A few decades ago Haiti was self-sufficient in rice," argues Grain.Org, a lobbying group. "But conditions on foreign loans, particularly a 1994 package from the IMF, forced it to liberalise its market. Cheap rice flooded in from the US, backed by subsidies and corruption, and local production was wiped out. Now prices for rice have risen 50 per cent since last year and the average Haitian can't afford to eat."

Some of the big guns at the main event are making similar noises. The world has failed to do the simple things, they say: to keep the small farmers in business, to make it possible for them to grow more, and to sell what they grow, by simple, unglamorous improvements.

Lennart Bage, director of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said: "The underlying root cause is the decline in productivity growth – down from 3 to 5 per cent 20 years ago, to 1 to 2 per cent now."

He said the ways to change that were, first, small-scale irrigation because 90 per cent of African farming is rain fed. Second, to build country roads, so farmers can bring the crops to market. Third, micro-credit, to keep them from the hands of the money-lenders. Nothing new, nothing untried. But enough to make a revolution anyway.