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U.S. says food is not a right, but silent on ending poverty


The first World Food Summit in 22 years brought numerous world leaders and delegates to Rome last November. The pledge and promise that resulted were impressive: reduce the number of hungry people by half by the year 2015 -- from 840 million to 420 million.

The 35-page plan of action drawn up by the Food and Agricultural Organization, the conference sponsor, is fact-filled and moving. But after reading the carefully crafted recommendations and all the statistical material, one is left with the conviction that the international community should be doing more.

One has to be sympathetic to the officials and bureaucrats who do all they can to conquer the daunting problem before them. But the document silently proves that what is lacking is the political will to phase out poverty.

It almost seems as if the United States is weary of the struggle that Presidents Jack Kennedy and Gerald Ford faced courageously. In the 1970s the U.S. Congress passed a resolution ratifying the right to food and decreed that every action of the U.S. must take the right to food into consideration. But in Rome last November, the U.S. delegation came out looking weak by its legalistic pronouncement that the right to food is not really guaranteed by international law.

In one of the conference's 15 written recommendations, the United States also objected to the goal that rich nations should spend 0.7 percent of their annual economic wealth on aid to poor nations. It stressed the need to remove trade barriers in order to diminish hunger.

The specifics in the declaration at the end of the summit are heartbreaking. Some 26 nations, for example, suffer constant water shortages; this affects 230 million inhabitants. One-half of the world's hungry people -- 420 million -- reside in Asia.

Then U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali decried the extent of hunger among children: 200 million children under the age of seven are undernourished. A child dies every eight seconds. He appealed for a new "mobilization against hunger."

The outlook for the future is foreboding. The conference was reminded again and again that the world will add another 2.5 billion people in the next 25 years. The 90 million persons added each year to the global village cannot be expected to count on the fantastic results of the green revolution, which seems to be reaching a plateau; inexorable yield increases cannot be relied upon.

There are, however, some signs of hope. Biotechnology continues its miracles in pest control and in developing a new strain of "super rice." In the United States, the Department of Agriculture forecasts that the corn and soy bean crops this year will be the second or third largest on record.

The awful spectacle of over a million refugees wandering helplessly in the mountains and forests of eastern Zaire haunted those in attendance at conference. The delegates had to wonder how much their lofty recommendations and noble aspirations would help those victims of ethnic and racial violence.

The comprehensive declaration on world food security issued by the conferees has to be one of the most compelling statements on this agonizing topic ever issued by any international body. But, for political and strategic reasons, the declaration could not speak of the $900 billion spent each year on the military by all the nations of the earth.

Alone among the major spokesmen in Rome, the pope mentioned the vast sums spent on the military. This more than any other factor considered at the Rome conference makes impossible an adequate distribution of food. If even one-third of the $900 billion consumed each year by the military could be diverted to the production and distribution of food, the goal of the conference to decrease by half the 800 million people who are chronically malnourished by the year 2015 could be achieved in a matter of months.

But the slaughter goes on. Over 35,000 children will die of hunger the day you read this column. And every day.

Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997