UN food summit hits snag

Cuban, Argentine concerns on embargo, trade restrictions, hold up accord.

wheat 88 (photo credit: )
wheat 88
(photo credit: )
Delegates to a UN summit struggled Thursday to agree on how to ease world hunger, hitting last-minute snags over trade policy and economic embargoes, participants and UN officials said. The agreement was being held up by Cuba's insistence that a summit document deal with embargoes and Argentina's objections to calls to ease trade restrictions, they said. Delegates to the three-day summit at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization were trying to secure agreement on a strategy to combat growing hunger and civil unrest sparked by the skyrocketing prices of food and fuel. A late-night round of talks Wednesday failed over insistence by Cuba and some other Latin American countries on language condemning embargoes, notably the long-standing sanctions against the communist-run island, said Nick Parsons, a spokesman for the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the summit host. The United States, a huge aid donor, opposes efforts to condemn the Cuban embargo. Also blocking an accord was an Argentine push to toughen the final declaration's language on trade restrictions. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the summit such measures as import taxes and export restrictions must be minimized to help ease hunger caused by soaring food prices. The final draft of the document, obtained by The Associated Press, calls for more efforts to liberalize international trade in agriculture "by reducing trade barriers and market-distorting policies." Guatemalan Agriculture Minister Raul Robles said the Argentineans were dissatisfied with the draft's wording calling for a "reduction in trade barriers." Export taxes have been a hot political issue in Argentina, where farmers have resorted to strikes to protest a tax hike on soy and sunflower seed exports. The government says the higher revenue is needed to redistribute wealth to the poor, but farmers say the hikes make it difficult to earn a living. Robles said discussions with Havana's representatives indicated the embargo snag was approaching a solution. "I think we must not confuse the goal of this summit with political goals," said Alberto Lopez, a member of the Spanish delegation. "We are looking for an agreement to solve the dramatic situation" of widening hunger in the world, he told The Associated Press. "We cannot have political declarations coming at the advantage of a single nation." The draft declaration calls for stepped-up food production, reduced trade restrictions and more research on the contentious issue of biofuels. It ends with a pledge to stimulate food production, increase investment in agriculture, address obstacles to food access and use the planet's resources in a sustainable way. The draft seeks a balance between contrasting positions on biofuels - fuel made from crops such as sugar cane and corn - saying it is essential to address the "challenges and opportunities" they pose. Critics contend biofuels take food from the table, but supporters say they have little impact on food prices. Brazil, the US and other big producers of biofuels also disagree on which crops are better suited to produce the energy source. The document echoes Ban's call to increase food production by 50 percent by 2030 to meet rising demand. Ban predicted that as much as $20 billion a year may be needed to increase food production. Many countries and regional development banks announced major funding to stimulate farming in Africa and elsewhere.