On the fiddle in Rome: Saturday story

Delgates to the World Food Summit wine and dine, and neglect the topic of hunger, says Anne Hanley
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The Independent Online
Eight hundred million people around the globe may be undernourished, but there's been little sign of deprivation at the World Food Summit, which winds up in Rome tomorrow.

Not, naturally, that you would have expected the delegations from 196 nations to include even a small sample of their countries' starving masses. No, the delegates here have a comfortable, well-fed look. And the tailored suits and flowing robes which have succeeded each other on the speaker's stand at regular seven-minute intervals over the past four days have placed worldly concepts such as having nothing with which to fill stomachs on a decidedly abstract plain. People are starving, so let's talk politics, diplomacy, big business ... Anything but concrete ways of helping the world's undernourished.

Setting the somewhat unreal tone for the gathering when it opened last Wednesday was Pope John Paul II. Curved over in his chair, mumbling his speech in halting French, the Pontiff gave every appearance of having mixed up his summits: "It would be an illusion to believe that an arbitrary stabilisation of the world's population, or even its reduction, could directly solve the problem of hunger," he warned, picking up where the Vatican delegation left off in the Cairo parley on population last year.

"A large population can prove to be a source of development because it involves exchanges and demand for goods."

Coming from a celibate man sufficiently removed from worldly reality to be able to equate (as he has on numerous occasions) his own well-monitored health problems with the suffering of the poor and needy, the invitation to go forth, multiply and thereby boost domestic markets had a hollow ring to it.

The Pope's words clearly brought much pleasure to many mainly female, middle-aged journalists from obscure - generally Catholic - magazines, who felt vindicated in leaping up in ensuing press conferences to harangue delegates from most Western nations over their governments' birth control policies.

But they certainly failed to impress the US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who made no bones about under-scoring his country's rift with the Vatican over the urgent need for family planning. While denying strongly that the US ever made food aid dependent on population control measures, Glickman did resort to demographic scare tactics. There will be 2.5 billion more people on the earth by the year 2010, he insisted in his address to the plenary session, and again in his ensuing press conference. And with this demographic time bomb ticking away, he went on, a healthy - or unhealthy, depending on your point of view - dose of bioengineering to increase crop yields and "improve" crop quality will be needed to defuse it. (The cynical might observe that this could also be good news for America's agribusiness.)

"We need to use science as a friend," he told a press conference. "Naturally, I'm talking about sound, responsible science. If we don't look upon science as a friend we'll face food shortages 25 years from now much worse than those of today.

In a not very convincing attempt to show that he was prepared to admit America has some faults, Glickman talked of curbing food wastage in the US ("15 million meals a day are thrown into garbage bins in my country alone") but obviously, he continued, this is a job for the market: a free market, untrammelled by protectionist policies and allowing free rein to big business. Bring on, therefore, the multinationals ("governments are under too much fiscal pressure: large industry has the cash flow and the moral responsibility"), and their bioengineers. And cue protests: in one of the more memorable events of a generally dull summit, Glickman's press conference was held up by a trio of women who ripped their clothes off to reveal anti-American slogans painted across their torsos, while a male colleague - fully dressed, of course - scattered organically grown grain over the assembled press corps. Embarrassed carabinieri bustled them out of the room as Glickman leered: "Aren't we all glad we're in a country where we're free to express ourselves." Even something as tedious as a World Food Summit has some perks for the Agriculture Secretary.

Just down the road from the main attraction, at the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum, Greenpeace called a press conference to protest against the US stance. One billion more hungry people in five years' time was the environmental watchdog's prediction for the world. And, Greenpeace thundered, if genetic manipulation of crops becomes the norm, health will suffer, the environment will suffer, control of food supplies will be concentrated in the hands of some 10 companies in developed countries which hold the patents for bioengineered seeds, and rural unemploy-ment in the Third World will shoot up as large-scale farm- ing methods are introduced.

If this was all coming too close for comfort to the topic that was meant to be under discussion, there were other, more exciting diversions to take delegates' minds off starvation itself.

There was, for example, the mini-rerun of the Beijing summit on women: women's place in agricultural production, women's rights to education, rural women's access to finance. "To ensure food security, protecting women's rights and improving their health and nutrition is just as important as improved agricultural technology and trade," said Unicef's executive director, Carol Bellamy.

(It was difficult not to wonder what kind of beneficial effect was to be derived from first ladies' rights to spend five days shopping, and being ushered around the beauty spots of Rome, Florence and Venice while their husbands saw to the important business at the summit.)

The situation around the Great Lakes also provided a good alternative: Zaire's speaker caught the plenary session wrong-footed when he demanded that food aid be sent elsewhere, along with the refugees who have done nothing but wreak economic and environmental havoc on his comparatively wealthy and resource-rich nation.

After a moment's embarrassment, it was as if he had never opened his mouth, however: as if Zaire had no say in the matter, ministers from developed nations continued to pledge their support for the multilateral force which will be sent to the region, and to circumnavigate pesky journalists seeking information more definite than statements of good intentions.

Sanctions, too, provided an interesting sideline. The Libyan representative got in early to inveigh against the indignities and unfairness of the embargo against his country, but his words were soon forgotten, swept along and away by the tide of generally tedious speeches paying lip service to the needs of the hungry. Iraq was unable to exploit its opportunity for appealing to the world's conscience, the world having carefully ensured that it was scheduled to speak late on in the summit, when attention was already flagging.

But Cuba, ah Cuba! Without saying a word about the situation caused by the US embargo, it ensured that the world was watching its every movement, in a crescendo of suspense worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. For the 2,000-plus journalists in Rome for the summit, the Castro saga made running the gauntlet of an immense and not always swift-moving security operation - not to mention immense boredom - worthwhile.

"Is he here?" "He's getting here tonight." "No, tomorrow morning." "I know someone who's seen him here already." No, impossible, there's a storm in the Caribbean, I bet he won't come at all."

For the hacks, hungry for a story more gripping than mild condemnations of food unfairness, this has not been so much the World Food Summit as the Castro Watch.

Fidel (and we all feel as if we're on first name terms with him by now) was expected to fly in - on Wednesday evening, and Thursday night, then Friday morning and now this morning - to give the world's leaders hell over Cuban sanctions; but, if truth be told, it's not his nation's plight which is most compelling: of much greater importance, to the press at least, is whether he'll meet the Pope and whether he'll take up the magnanimous invitation from the Franciscans - much persecuted by the Havana regime - to visit them at their headquarters in Assisi. After all, how can a mere 30 per cent drop in living standards as a result of the US embargo compare to Fidel's kissing the Pope's ring? And what possible interest could the Helms-Burton Act hold, when there is the possibility that Fidel might spend some time admiring a Giotto fresco cycle in an Umbrian basilica?

With so much attention focused on the Castro show, it is little wonder that much of the world's press preferred to overlook one of the biggest provocations launched during the summit, by Britain's Overseas Development Secretary, Baroness Lynda Chalker.

"We've done the talking, now it's time for action," she told the press after her speech to the plenary session. "There are delegations of 100 people accredited here ... though where they are, I don't know; they're certainly not here in this building. That seems to negate the purpose of the summit."

Chalker also made a dig at international aid organisations, particularly the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which has hosted this week's summit. Asked whether she approved of the work of UN agencies, she said pointedly: "The World Food Programme is doing admirable things. We are trying to get others to change their methods."

And eliminating summits would be a good first step, she said. Few of the listening journalists disagreed.