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Need for fair terms
of food trade


 I really enjoy this time of year.   There are so many small signs of the emerging beauty of spring.   And,  after a while,  they become overwhelming and we know that spring is for real.

As the mornings get lighter,  I get back to walking down the hill to work.   So I watch blossoms and bulbs breaking into colour.   Every day,  there are more specks of colour to delight in.

So my spirit rejoices at the colouring in of our city.   How could it ever be any better,  I wonder?   However,  there are many people in the world for whom nature is not so benign,  people who struggle to feed themselves and their family and who find it hard to make even a subsistence living.   Yet there is no part of the world where humans have chosen to live where it is not possible for people to feed themselves.

Naturally enough,  we trade in food  -  the advantages are all too obvious.   But the impact of trading brings its own sorrows.

Trading in food has become an international way of life and it has spread into all but the most remote of human communities.   So,  in most countries,  as in our own,  there are people who are specialists in growing food to sell to their fellow country people and in the international markets.

One would think that this would make the lot of the poorest people on earth much better.   After all,  they can earn money and buy for themselves a far wider range of food than they can grow.   But this is not always the case.

Take the story of Mamadou Niang,  who is one of thousands of rice farmers in Senegal who are facing an uncertain future because of unfair trade rules.

Mr Niang is 36 years old and married with four children.   He works hard to try and eke out a living from growing rice,  but it's becoming more and more difficult.

Last year,  Mr Niang made enough money to last five months,  and then he was forced to sell some of his goats to get by.   His declining goat herd makes each year more precarious.   "My herd of goats is now much smaller than it used to be.   This is my bank account,  my savings."

As with most poor countries,  the Senegalese Government has promised the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that it will open up its markets to foreign competition as a condition for receiving much-needed loans.   But the effect of open markets on farmers like Mr Niang and his family is devastating.   They cannot compete with the cheaper rice flooding in from Asia and the United States,  supported well by subsidies.

So much of their rice ends up unsold.   Mr Niang is under no illusions.   He knows that Senegal could not be self-sufficient in rice and he is not asking for handouts.   "But,"  he says,  "I do think we should be given the chance to sell our rice first and that we should receive some subsidies for our fertiliser."

So,  Mr Niang and many like him are left without a market,  with ever-decreasing assets and with an uncertain future.

Senegal seems a long way from the benign beauty of these spring mornings.   But it is not nature that is harsh,  rather it is unfair trade that is harsh  . The recent World Trade Organisation talks in Mexico did little to give comfort to the poor of this world.

Perhaps there are other ways of feeding folk.   Some countries have tried to improve their productivity with genetically modified product.   But that also works against them as the patents and licensing agreements,  payable to the first world producers,  are too costly.   So,  even if we accept the need to meddle with nature in this way,  life is not better.

Genetic modification,  itself a highly questionable practice,  actually contributes little to the nourishing of the poorest on this planet.   So,  the terms of trade,  both in food and GM food,  contribute significantly to world poverty.

The problem is not the science,  or even the climate.   It is the trade and the trade terms that well-off countries impose,  to their advantage, on those who are poorest.   This is the underlying reason why the rich are getting richer and the poor continue to struggle.   Trade talks,  with little commitment on the part of the wealthy countries to working at global economic justice,  are proving a leisurely way of dealing with a most urgent problem.

"Corngate"  has not been about corn or even about genetic modification and the complex questions that GM raises.   It has been the most arid rhetoric of positional oppositionalism.   Meanwhile,  the poor still starve.   We need to remember that whether or not the moratorium comes off at the end of October,  the call to establish universally fair terms of trade in food commodities remains a very strong imperative.

The Right Rev Dr Penny Jamieson is the Anglican
Bishop of Dunedin.   This article was published in the
Otago Daily Times of September 23, 2003.



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