Canada leaves a bad taste at UN hunger summit

Posted on November 20, 2009 in Governance Debates – Opinion/comment – Canada leaves a bad taste at UN hunger summit
Published On Fri Nov 20 2009.   Matias Margulis

Over the past few days, leaders have congregated at the UN World Summit on Food Security in Rome to reach a new global consensus on how to fight hunger.

Last year’s food crisis pushed the number of hungry people to a record 1 billion people. This problem is not one of production. At no other time in human history have so many people been hungry, despite the fact that more than enough food is produced to feed everyone and the crisis occurred amid record harvests.

The hunger problem will get worse before it gets better. Food prices have not returned to their pre-crisis levels and are expected to stay high for at least a decade, keeping adequate food out of reach of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. This is a result of the deep link between food and energy prices; modern agriculture systems rely on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides.

This grim outlook does not even take into account the impacts of climate change on our agriculture systems. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global warming will drive another 200 million people into hunger over the coming decades.

It was this sense of acute urgency that spurred the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to convene this week’s summit. The summit is timely and builds on recent work by the UN system to dramatically reform global food security policy.

Canada’s words and actions have been closely watched at the summit. Over the past year, the Harper government has sent mixed signals on its agriculture and food security policies, leaving the international community unsure of the strength of its commitments to tackle the global war on hunger.

At the summit, the minister for international cooperation outlined the government’s new food security strategy. The new policy commits Canada to significantly increase its funding for international food assistance and agriculture investment, and to take on a leadership role on hunger in international forums.

The plan has been welcomed by the development community as a good signal of intent.

While the government deserves credit for making food security a priority issue, this all comes very late in the game; in fact, a good year and a half after the apex of the food crisis. The policy is also considerably short of details on what exactly the government intends to do. The lack of precision in the announcement is a concern, especially in light of the recent auditor general’s report that highlighted Canada’s poor track record on ensuring the effectiveness of its international development aid.

Canada needs to move swiftly to clarify its new strategy. It should do so in step with the new food policy paradigm expressed at the World Summit on Food Security. This calls for targeted assistance for the most vulnerable and insecure groups, especially women and small-scale farmers, and support for local and regional mechanisms to minimize price volatility, such as regional and local food reserves.

While the minister portrayed Canada as a country highly committed to ensuring food security at the summit, the government’s efforts need to be judged by its broader policy agenda. Let us recall that last year’s food crisis was triggered by biofuels, of which Canada is a major producer and has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies. If the government wants to ensure a coherent food security strategy, it should undertake a major review of its biofuel subsidy program to ensure Canada does not again contribute to a future food crisis.

The government’s efforts to portray itself as a leader in food security at the summit contradict its diplomatic efforts on the ground. In fact, Canada was one of the countries that most strongly resisted convening the world summit, even after it had a critical mass of support from major powers such as Brazil and all developing countries.

Many countries have indicated that Canada worked intensely behind the scenes to water down the language of the summit declaration.

For example, the government was instrumental in weakening the language of the summit’s declaration for the human right to food to guide the global food crisis response plan. This is perplexing. Canada is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which explicitly recognizes the human right to food. Even the United States, which is the only developed country not to ratify the covenant, was not nearly as oppositional.

Both developed and developing countries have expressed exasperation over Canada’s position, asking why a major liberal democracy would try to railroad a strong reference to basic human rights. This does great damage to Canada’s reputation as a strong supporter of human rights, and is inconsistent with Canadian values and even the government’s foreign policy to urge countries to improve their human rights records.

The government has repeatedly stated it wants to be a global leader on food security. It will have an important opportunity to make good on this promise in three weeks when Canada assumes the chair’s role at an international food aid convention. This is a unique opportunity for Canada to initiate a major rethink on global food assistance in line with other multilateral food security efforts.

According to the UN, a child dies of hunger every six seconds. Time is of the essence and the government must translate its statements of intent into concrete actions immediately.

Matias Margulis is an adviser to the United Nations on food security and human rights.

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