Call for trade barriers to be removed to ease crisis

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Indy Politics

This morning, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon will stand up in front of leaders from nearly all the UN's member states and warn them that only drastic action will defuse the crisis over soaring food prices that has erupted over the past year.

When first planned one year ago, this summit was going to be about climate change but with world food prices soaring out of control, it has been hijacked by events. With food riots breaking out in countries as far apart as Egypt, the Ivory Coast and the Philippines, the task of the meeting is to agree on action that will make a difference.

Mr Ban will plead with the leaders of more than 24 nations that have imposed trade restrictions, agricultural taxes and other price controls to remove them. Those are the measures, he will say, that are driving prices through the roof. Both short-term and longer-term measures are in the summit's sights. The short-term goal is to ensure a flood of financial assistance to the world's subsistence farmers to ensure they have enough seeds and fertilisers to guarantee a healthy crop this season.

The World Bank, whose president Robert B Zoellick is attending the summit, announced this week that the agency will provide $1.2bn (£610m) in financing for agricultural support. Describing the food crisis as a man-made "silent tsunami", he spelled out a 10-point plan to combat the crisis. Those include backing for the World Food Programme's emergency needs, support for safety nets such as distributing food in schools and offering food in exchange for work.

He said more money should be spent on agricultural supply and research spending, "reversing years of agricultural underinvestment". "We must be neither Luddite nor advocates of a single scientific fix," he insisted, urging support both for agribusiness and small farmers.

But fierce clashes are predicted during the conference. At a briefing yesterday, the US Secretary for Agriculture Ed Schafer insisted that the steep rise in the use of corn and other crops for biofuels "is only one of many contributing factors in the increased food prices", responsible for less than 3 per cent of price rises.

Others maintain that the biofuels, subsidised in the US to the tune of 61 cents in the gallon, have contributed as much as one-third to the rise in food prices worldwide.

The US also believes firmly in the vital importance of genetically modified (GM) crops in spearheading a new green revolution – while many others believe they are merely a way of delivering the world's poor farmers into the hands of the corporations that produce the seeds on which they would become dependent.