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"The face of the country is covered with ripe corn while the people dread starvation," wrote a contemporary official during the Irish famine of 1847-48: "The grain will go out of the country." Throughout history, over reliance on exports has been a recipe for food insecurity and famine.

Since the 1960s, US politicians have openly stated that food is a political weapon. Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said: "If you are looking for a way to get people to lean on you it seems to me that food dependence would be terrific." Behind GATT's insistence on opening up domestic food markets, many fear the US is using the agreement "to reinforce food import dependence".

On the global market it is not individual buyers and sellers who set the national and international rules that determine who benefits from trade; that role has passed to the most economically powerful governments and their political allies, notably the transnational companies that control 80 percent of world trade. The chief beneficiaries will be the Northern industrialised countries: a 1993 joint report by the World Bank and OECD pointed out two-thirds of the expected increase in global income attributable to GATT will accrue to the OECD countries where just one-third of the world's population live. In Indonesia, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Mediterranean, however, real incomes are expected to decline by $7 billion a year, collectively.

The popular message that a policy of trade liberalisation and increased trade will benefit the poor of the Third World rather than its elites is a myth. The extent to which a country benefits from trading is regulated by the terms under which it trades. The elimination of restrictions of the free-trade round of GATT does not apply to "delinked" payments - payments which are not directly connected to farmers' levels of agricultural output. It covers neither the income support levels paid to EC farmers nor the "deficiency" payments made to US farmers, which compensate for the low price paid for their grain by multinational companies. A 1990 OECD report estimates that such payments allow the EC, the USA and Canada to subsidise their agriculture by 49%, 30% and 41% respectively. The fact that these payments were exempted from the new GATT treaty makes a mockery of the claim that industrial countries will no longer be able to dump cheap grain on the Third World.

The GATT clearly shifts subsidies from those who need them - farmers - to the corporate sector. Marketing and promotion services, the costs of roads, transport, market and port facilities are allowed to be subsidised: Government sponsored research is also exempted. In India, for example, the thrust of government research in agriculture is towards encouraging research into export crops and food processing technologies of benefit to the export trade. An increase in exports will also involve less production for domestic consumption. A 1990 report published jointly by the World Bank and OECD calculated the effects of India's export oriented structural adjustment policy and forecast that by 2000 the amount of agricultural produce consumed by humans would decrease by 26.2%; that more calories would be produced but less consumed per capita; and that the number of hungry would be 5.6% higher than would have been the case without liberalisation.

Recognition of this has not led to bans upon exporting food even in years of domestic shortage. This is nothing short of mass execution. It is common knowledge that famines are caused less by natural lack than by inefficient and inequitable distribution of food. Thousands died in Ireland in the 1840s while Irish grain continued to be exported to England, just as thousands died in Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s while Ethiopian lentils, cotton, coffee and beef continued to be exported to Europe. The Bengal famine of 1942 killed over 2 million people. It happened when India's market was highly liberalised producing cash crops, such as cotton, tobacco, tea, coffee, jute, indigo and opium; and it was in the areas devoted to cash crops that the famine was felt worst.

As Thomas Ogada, Kenyan representative to the UN at Geneva, said commenting on the GATT, free-trade round: "Very few people in sub-Saharan Africa have heard of the Uruguay Round, yet it will sound the death-knell for Africa. It is good to go along to see how you are being prepared for sacrifice."

Source: The Ecologist, Dec 1993 Goldsmith (ed.).

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