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Access to Food: Identifying issues and developing solutions for food security in the Americas.

Today, most families consume some food produced in other countries as well as food grown inside their own national borders. Foods produced outside the country may, in many cases, be higher quality, more nutritious food. Unfortunately, the prices of these foods--especially grains and other basic foodstuffs considered "commodities"--are subject to the ups and downs of the international market. As prices continue to rise, guidelines must be established to reduce the volatility of international prices and allow families access to healthy, inexpensive food.

Recently, the G-20 has taken up the issue. Its November 2011 Declaration and Action Plan on Food Price Volatility recognizes the problem and proposes measures to respond to it. The essence of the plan is that agricultural production must be increased in order to promote food security and facilitate sustainable economic growth. In addition, a stable, predictable, open, and transparent trade system that is free of distortions is needed to permit greater investment in agriculture, which would reduce prices as the supply of food increases. The G-20 calls for improved agricultural production and productivity and more information about the agricultural products market for greater transparency. It aims to reinforce coordination on international policies, improve the functioning of the commodities market, and reduce the effects of price volatility on the most vulnerable.



However, these measures alone do not solve the problem. Other variables that have a direct influence on international trade in food must also be considered, such as: climate change which is causing flooding and droughts that prevent the production of basic foods; population growth and the corresponding demand for more food; the effect of biodiesel production on food prices; and the fact that people's eating habits are changing. Added to these factors are international price speculation and the difference in prices between the places fit for producing food and places where food must be purchased. Repercussions of varying kinds occur in different countries throughout the world, but those who suffer most are the poorest people in countries that must import food. In those places, the absence of adequate transportation infrastructure further increases the price that the final consumer must pay.

Other factors influencing the price of food are the taxes applied directly to food sales and taxes levied when foodstuffs are brought in through customs from other countries. Unfortunately, many trade agreements and some World Trade Organization hales also contribute to the problem.

Since free trade policies gained dominance in the 1990s, countless agreements have been made to create integration processes, tariff preference areas, common markets, free trade zones, and customs unions. While all of these things have helped participating countries to trade food goods with each other, in many cases they have also helped to limit the free circulation of these goods. They have done so in part by establishing quotas aimed at protecting national producers and nascent industries from having to compete with outside products. These artificial limitations keep large volumes of food from moving on the international market and the situation is aggravated as demand increases. Experience has shown that rather than protecting national producers, the quotas actually keep them competing on unequal terms with those who have more efficient means of producing the same goods. Nevertheless, agreements reached in the last few years continue to include these restrictive measures.

Quotas on food goods exchanged between Peru and Mexico will require special attention when the free trade agreement signed between the two countries in Lima on April 6 goes into effect. In order to limit the volume of food products that could come into Mexico from Peru, quotas have been established for products made with kiwicha and quinoa, both of which have high nutritional value. The same is true for corn, oranges, grapefruits, lemons, avocados, chili peppers, beans, and plantains, and also for grains, which have a quota of 41,000 tons per year.

This situation is also occurring in Morocco where the European Union (EU) has fixed quotas on Morocco's tomato exports to France and cantaloupe exports to the entire European community. Israel faces similar barriers to exporting peppers to the EU.

The application of safeguards has a similar effect, whether under the WTO rules or those of preferential trade agreements, but safeguards are applied for a shorter period of time than quotas. Given the harmful consequences of trade quotas, some groups are deciding to restrict and even eliminate them. The Latin American Integration Association (ALADI) has asked member countries with higher relative levels of economic development to begin to eliminate their quotas gradually.

Low-cost distribution of food is also limited by the "rules of origin" contained in all agreements aimed at economic integration. Primary products are considered to be completely produced in the exporting country, but if there is any value added to these products in a second or third country, the products fall under different rules and do not qualify for the tariff advantages negotiated in the treaty. Thus, in many cases, only raw materials or inputs can be used; products transformed in third countries are not considered to be from the country of origin and therefore receive nonpreferential tariffs. This situation could be reversed by providing incentives to negotiate expanded accumulation provisions that would permit the entry of goods or services from third countries that are not members of that particular integration process and still treat them as products from the country of origin, just as the EU did in 2010 for countries under the Generalized System of Preferences. The absence of an expanded accumulation provision in trade agreements is a limitation that increases the price of food products and therefore makes it harder for families to have access to the food they need for healthy and balanced diets.

The role of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules should also be mentioned. For example the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures makes it possible to keep agricultural or primary products from crossing borders into a new customs territory if there is any suspicion that they may present a hazard to human or animal health. In some cases, this rule has limited the natural movement of food and had effects similar to those of quotas. Donations of food and medicine are also subject to quotas and other measures that limit the free circulation of these goods and make it impossible for the neediest populations to access them. International trade agreements, for example, do not always foresee needs for donations after natural disasters. It must also be said that taxes are still high on food exports and imports.

An international agreement on government purchases of food products with humanitarian, non-commercial purposes does not appear to be the solution to the problem either. However, it could lead to the creation of certain rules that would make these purchases more transparent, as the G20 mentions in its Declaration.

It is important to keep in mind as well the differences between food-producing countries and countries that depend on imports to feed their population. Not all countries can grow enough food for their needs and they are extremely dependent on purchasing these products from abroad. We all know that the physical and psychic development of children depends on good nutrition and that women must take in sufficient essential nutrients to give birth to healthy children. The problem of rising food prices has a direct impact on these most vulnerable groups and has repercussions for the healthy and balanced development of the families who make up our civil societies. We are beginning to see the harmful effects of the rising price of food on the international market. They are especially visible in lesser developed countries and those that lack the necessary means to produce enough food for themselves.

It is imperative that we find solutions to these problems. When people are unable to gain access to food or water, we can expect there will be violence and cycles of violence. In addition to organized crime, corruption, instability, the war on terrorism, human rights protection, illegal economies, and contraband; the international community should include access to food as a common problem that must be resolved together with new paradigms. We must continue to study the causes and consequences of the volatility of food prices and go beyond what our world leaders have done thus far. By the year 2050, we will have 9 billion people on the planet. To satisfy demand for food, agricultural production will have to increase by 70 percent. Water must also be conserved and protected for the same reasons.

In many ways, the future depends on us. The American continent is projected to be the largest food-producing region in the world, and so we have the greatest possibilities for promoting change. The countries of the inter-American system--with our regional organizations like the Organization of American States (OAS), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), among others--can solve problems of food security and access to food, working together with the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The 6th Summit of the Americas was held in April 2012 and the 42nd Regular Session of the OAS General Assembly will take place in June. At these meetings, we must grapple seriously with these issues and give shape to a legal framework that begins to create new rules and ensure that the most vulnerable are able to gain access to the food they need.

Lautaro L. Ramirez is a lawyer and author of several publications on regional economic integration. ----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Ramirez, Lautaro M.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:May 1, 2012
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