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An Open Letter to Edouard Saouma, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture

Organization of the United Nations

Dear Edouard Saouma, This letter is to inform you that we are launching an international campaign to urge member states of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to withhold payments from FAO pending a radical reappraisal of its policies and a complete restructuring of its organization. We have taken this course of action because we are convinced that the policies being pushed by FAO — policies for which you, as Director-General, must take prime responsibility — are a major cause of world famine, ecological destruction and social alienation. This issue of The Ecologist documents our case.

A Decade and a Half of Failure In 1974, two years before you were elected to office, the United Nations hosted the first World Food Conference in Rome. In his keynote speech to the conference, Dr. Henry Kissinger vowed, "Within a decade, no man, woman or child will go to bed hungry." FAO endorsed that view, launching a series of ambitious programmes which it claimed would boost food production and rid the world of famine.

Yet a decade and a half later, there are more people starving than at any time in human history, the environment is more degraded than ever and conditions for growing food have never been less propitious. Africa now teeters on the brink of continent-wide famine, with two-thirds of its countries wracked by chronic food shortages and malnutrition. In Sudan and Ethiopia alone, 15 million people are currently facing a slow death through starvation. Many countries in South Asia and South and Central America are in similarly desperate straits. In 1987, more children died from malnutrition in India and Pakistan alone than in all the 46 nations of Africa put together.

No doubt, as in the past, you will attempt to blame this massive human tragedy on a lack of resources, or the failure of "ignorant peasant farmers" to apply your policies of modernizing agriculture widely enough or vigorously enough.

This will not wash, Mr Saouma. It is your policies that are at fault, not peasants or lack of finance. Whether in agriculture, in forestry, or in aquaculture, you have promoted policies which benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of the livelihoods of the poor. Policies that are, in effect, systematically creating the conditions for mass starvation.

FAO: The Famine Machine As the International Movement for Ecological Agriculture rightly notes (see pp.99-104): 'The history of hunger is a history of unjust social and economic systems which, frequently in combination with ecological degradation, have marginalized the poor and deprived them of the means to eat."

FAO has refused to act on this simple truth. Indeed, for the past quarter of a century, it has systematically avoided confronting the hard political and social causes of hunger and malnutrition. In 1979, FAO organized the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, which resulted in what you termed a "Peasants' Charter". But FAO balked at the challenge of land reform: instead, it chose to continue on the politically expedient path of defining the problem as one of underproduction and a lack of "effective demand".

You vigorously supported the "Green Revolution", which promoted an agricultural strategy based on intensifying production through the use of modern inputs, dragging peasants into the market economy and promoting export-led development. It is a strategy that has both intensified and extended the grip of hunger, strengthening those very forces that reduce the availability of food to the poor. Landlessness has been exacerbated, the environment degraded, wealth further concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and ecologically sound systems of agriculture systematically undermined (see Vandana Shiva, this issue).

And how could it have been otherwise? In promoting "off-farm" inputs — that is, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and "improved seeds" — FAO has delivered peasant farmers into the hands of those who control such inputs, creating dependency where there was independence, forcing farmers to buy what was previously free, locking farmers into a cycle of diminishing returns on fertilizers, increasing pesticide use and debt. Thus whereas peasants formerly set aside their seeds every year — giving them a free source of supply for the next harvest — the new hybrids which FAO promotes leave the peasant with no option but to return year-in, year-out to the seed companies if they are to have seeds to plant. Worse still, the seeds are now designed so that they will not grow without fertilizers. Small wonder that thousands of small farmers go to the wall every year, that land holdings

The Ecologist, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April 1991

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