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U.N. official plans to urge U.S. to reconsider its food policies

(Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Elizabeth Becker, NY Times: WASHINGTON — Jacques Diouf, the director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, dedicated to helping solve the world's hunger problems, knows he has a hard sell on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Diouf is here on a visit from his Rome headquarters, trying to keep alive the issues that stalled trade talks in Cancún, Mexico, last week. Like many at the talks, he wants Congress and the administration to reconsider the nation's annual $22 billion in farm subsidies, which make it hard for farmers in poorer countries to compete.

But he also wants to make a separate, difficult point: that the United States' generosity with food aid sometimes undermines countries' abilities to feed themselves.

The United States provides 41 percent of the food aid distributed by the United Nations. But in an interview at his agency's Washington offices, Mr. Diouf said hunger could be better fought if money were spent to help poor farmers dig wells and canals for irrigation and lay better roads to bring crops to market.

"Giving money to farmers before a crisis is better than giving food after the crisis hits," he said.

In the last 15 years, as rich countries increased their subsidies to their farmers and slashed aid to the world's poorest farmers, poor countries have gone from net exporters of food to net importers. With 70 percent of poor countries' populations dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, the change has helped fuel a rise in malnutrition. In places like sub-Saharan Africa, one out of three people suffer chronic hunger.

Mr. Diouf will meet with officials including Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; Andrew S. Natsios, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development; and Ann M. Veneman, secretary of agriculture.

But there is no immediate legislation before Congress, and both Republican and Democratic politicians are publicly rejecting much of the criticism leveled at the United States by the developing nations at Cancún. With the 2004 election on their minds, many lawmakers said they were disinclined to question the subsidies.

Mr. Diouf, an agricultural economist, said he would remind the lawmakers of the cold war era, when presidents like Ronald Reagan spent as much as $1.3 billion every year to help farmers around the world. Today, the United States gives some $400 million to that effort.

But the resistance to his various messages may be high. At a Congressional hearing today, Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, said he saw a bigger problem in tariffs imposed on imports by some poor countries, which make the exports of other poor countries less affordable.

"The vast bulk of market access barriers faced by farmers in developing countries are imposed by other developing countries," he said.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/24/international/24FOOD.html