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Agriculture Vital To Sustainable Development - 2002-08-27

In the developing world, agriculture forms the economic base of many countries. But developing nations often find themselves competing against heavily subsidized agricultural sectors in industrialized nations. The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg looked at the issue of agriculture Tuesday.

Those attending this summit have heard that industrialized nations spend around $350 billion each year in subsidies to farmers and agri-businesses. At the same time farmers in developing nations -- already struggling to overcome poor infrastructure and minimal access to technology -- complain that they often find themselves facing tariffs and other barriers that deny them access to markets.

The result, said Hartwig de Haen of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is that developing nations have become increasingly dependent on food imports. Mr. de Haen says one of the ways to change this is to give small farmers access to technology to increase yields and produce surpluses.

He says, "Small holders (small farmers) need marketable surpluses and for that they need the appropriate technologies as well as the market incentives. I think that it is very important that small farmers have access to technologies that allow them to increase sustainably the productivity of the limited resources that they have and they have choices for non-farm employment to supplement their income from farming."

Mr. M. S. Swaminathan, who has twice won the World Food Prize for his work in reducing levels of hunger in Asia, told delegates that industrialized nations need to create opportunities for developing countries to secure their livelihoods.

He says, "I would request all industrialized countries to consider giving some space for developing countries' agriculture in terms of producing more, marketing more, and also security for their livelihoods. Because this space is now being occupied by enormous subsidy, technology and capital investment so you don't give a space in industry, you don't give a space in agriculture, you squeeze the poor - then say you must reduce it by half and so on, all then becomes empty."

Many, if not most farmers in developing nations are women. Vendana Shiva, who is a member of the Women's Delegation at the summit, says in Africa women produce 50 percent of the continent's food on just two percent of its land. She says he ability of small farmers around the world to practice sustainable farming is being undermined by the dominance of the industrialized nations. Ms. Shiva says that one of the growing obstacles is privatization of water resources and of seeds and plants.

She says, "Water privatization is becoming a major threat to agriculture - I've just worked with communities where irrigation prices went up ten times because of privatization. We can't have food security if water itself is privatized. We cannot have food security if bio-diversity is privatized, because women's solutions to hunger and ecological security is bio-diversity. They use two percent of the land in Africa to produce 50 percent of the food, and they use bio-diversity to increase it, we can't allow its patenting, its monopolization, seeds need to come out of monopolies, corporations, into the common sharing of women's knowledge for the future."

Most of the delegates from developing nations agree that the top priority for a sustainable future in agriculture is equitable access to markets, technology and infrastructure for all farmers - particularly those in developing countries who lag so far behind.

Their view is shared by Ian Johnson, World Bank vice-president for sustainable development. He says the leaders of industrialized nations must come forward with a plan to deal with agricultural subsidies. Mr. Johnson told the summit that these subsidies are untenable in more developed world, and he said, they are untenable for the developing world too.