It’s not often that a President of the United States admits to, and regrets, commodity fetishism. But, apparently everyone’s reading Marx these days and when Bill Clinton admits that food oughtn’t to be treated like a commodity, he’s making a Marxist observation. Of course, the ultimate end point of Clinton’s analysis should be that no commodity should be treated like a commodity, but we can hope that he’ll get there in time.
President Clinton Tells UN Gathering “we blew it” by treating food like commodities
By CHARLES J. HANLEY, AP Special Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS – Former President Clinton told a U.N. gathering Thursday that the global food crisis shows “we all blew it, including me,” by treating food crops “like color TVs” instead of as a vital commodity for the world’s poor.
Addressing a high-level event marking Oct. 16’s World Food Day, Clinton also saluted President Bush — “one thing he got right” — for pushing to change U.S. food aid policy. He scolded the bipartisan coalition in Congress that killed the idea of making some aid donations in cash rather than in food.
Clinton criticized decades of policymaking by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and others, encouraged by the U.S., that pressured Africans in particular into dropping government subsidies for fertilizer, improved seed and other farm inputs as a requirement to get aid. Africa’s food self-sufficiency declined and food imports rose.
Now skyrocketing prices in the international grain trade — on average more than doubling between 2006 and early 2008 — have pushed many in poor countries deeper into poverty.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the gathering that prices on some food items are “500 percent higher than normal” in Haiti and Ethiopia, for example. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the number of undernourished people worldwide rose to 923 million last year.
“Food is not a commodity like others,” Clinton said. “We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves.”
He noted that food aid from wealthy nations could itself be a tool for bolstering agriculture in poor countries. Canada, for example, requires that 50 percent of its aid go as cash — not as Canadian grain — to buy crops grown locally in Africa and other recipient countries.
U.S. law, however, requires that almost all U.S. aid be American-grown food, which benefits U.S. farmers but undercuts local food crops. Bush proposed earlier this year that 25 percent of future U.S. aid be given in cash.
“A bipartisan coalition (in Congress) defeated him,” Clinton said. “He was right and both parties that defeated him were wrong.”
Clinton also criticized the heavy U.S. reliance on corn to produce ethanol, which increased demand for the crop and helped drive up grain prices worldwide.
“If we’re going to do biofuels, we ought to look at the more efficient kind,” he said, referring, for example, to the jatropha shrub, a nonfood source that grows on land not suitable for grain.
The U.N. General Assembly president, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua, agreed, speaking of the “madness of converting crops into fuel” for cars.
D’Escoto also expressed disappointment that of $22 billion pledged by wealthy nations to help poor nations’ agriculture in this year of food crisis, only $2.2 billion has been made available.
In opening the meeting, Ban expressed dismay at the potential impact of the global financial crisis on world hunger.
“While the international community is focused on turmoil in the global economy, I am extremely concerned that not enough is being done to help those who are suffering most: the poorest of the poor,” he said.