UN summit struggles to endorse food crisis plan
World leaders held last-ditch talks yesterday to agree an action plan to tackle the global food crisis, after three days of wrangling that has exposed strains over how to prevent hunger and poverty.
In a draft summit declaration obtained by AFP, they vowed to use "all means" to help victims of soaring prices, which have stretched family budgets in rich countries and sparked food riots in others.
But the draft includes compromise language notably on the vexed issue of biofuels, which are promoted in Brazil and the United States but criticised by others as taking up land that could otherwise be used to produce food.
Hours before the final declaration was due to be agreed in Rome -- a final press conference was scheduled for 5:00 p.m. (1500 GMT) -- EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel warned against short-term fixes.
"We mustn't give in to panic ... to surrender to the temptation for short-term solutions, even if we have to respond to a situation of distress," he told the summit.
The wrangling over diplomatic language came after UN officials announced almost three billion dollars (two billion euros) of new aid to help ease the food crisis.
Those new pledges were welcomed, but UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned that up to 20 billion dollars a year would be needed. "We simply cannot afford to fail," he told the summit hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Food prices have doubled in three years, according to the World Bank, sparking riots in Egypt and Haiti and in many African nations. Brazil, Vietnam, India and Egypt have all imposed food export restrictions.
The first day of the summit Tuesday saw colourful remarks by the presidents of Iran and Zimbabwe about Western pressure, while there has been plenty of criticism of rich countries' protection of their markets.
But by Wednesday, John Holmes, head of the UN task force on the crisis, said a "broad consensus" was building around an action plan, which is scheduled to be presented at a Group of Eight meeting in Japan later this month.
In the draft summit declaration the leaders vow to "use all means to alleviate the suffering caused by the current crisis, stimulate food production and increase investment in agriculture."
They also agree that food security must be taken into account in a long hoped-for new world trade accord, according to the draft declaration.
"We will strive to ensure that food agricultural trade and overall trade policies are conducive to fostering food security for all," they said, referring to last-gasp efforts to agree a World Trade Organization (WTO) deal.
But biofuels have proven the most contentious issue, according to delegates.
In what critics would likely see as ducking the issue, the draft summit declaration says biofuels present both "challenges and opportunities" -- and say more research is needed.
"We are convinced that in-depth studies are needed to ensure the production and use of biofuels is sustainable ... taking into account the need to achieve and maintain food security," adds the draft, which was still under discussion.
In addition, the summit was likely to agree to create a system to evaluate the impact of biofuels on food security, according to one FAO official.
"The evaluation system .. will be based on data provided by countries who decide to measure the impact of biofuels," said Kieth Wiebe, the UN body's official in charge of agricultural development.
Commentators said the summit risked producing a weak compromise. "Summit on the verge of failure," said Thursday's edition of the respected daily La Repubblica.
Reporting "no agreement between rich and poor countries," it said: "The summit risks ending without agreement on the final declaration or a face-saving accord with a document that is vague in form and content.”