UN food summit accord held up over Cuban concerns

Published 10:40 am Thursday, June 5, 2008

ROME (AP) — Delegates in the closing hours of a three-day U.N. summit were trying to agree Thursday on a final document on how to tackle growing hunger and civil unrest sparked by skyrocketing prices of food and fuel.

But Cuba and some other Latin American countries were insisting on language condemning embargoes, said Nick Parsons, a spokesman for the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which is hosting the summit.

The United States, a huge aid donor, opposes efforts to condemn its long-running embargo against the communist-run island. The U.S. delegation refused comment on the embargo snag because the closed-door negotiations were in progress.

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At least one delegate said there was much effort to overcome the embargo snag.

“I think we must not confuse the goal of this summit with political goals,” said Alberto Lopez, a member of the Spanish delegation.

“We are looking for an agreement to solve the dramatic situation” of widening hunger in the world, Lopez told The Associated Press. “We cannot have political declarations coming at the advantage of a single nation.”

Parsons said another sticking point in the talks going into Thursday involved some French reservations over language calling for world trade talk progress. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the summit on Tuesday by urging nations to reduce trade restrictions such as export limits and import tariffs.

A final draft of the summit declaration that was being haggled over Thursday calls for stepped up food production, reduced trade restrictions and more research on the contentious issue of biofuels.

A copy of the draft obtained by The Associated Press ends with a pledge to alleviate the suffering caused by the crisis, to stimulate food production, to increase investment in agriculture, to address obstacles to food access and to use the planet’s resources in a sustainable way.

The declaration of resolve to “address obstacles to food access” could be taken to refer to, among other restrictive measures, embargoes.

Previous food summits in Rome dating back to the last decade have also seen Cuba press for condemnation of the embargo.

The draft sought a balance between contrasting positions on biofuels that were highlighted during the summit. It said it was “essential” to address the “challenges and opportunities” posed by biofuels.

“In-depth studies are necessary to ensure that production and use of biofuels is sustainable,” it said.

Fuels made from sugar cane, corn and other crops have been seen as a way to combat climate change and rising oil prices. The United States has been heavily subsidizing corn-based ethanol production. Last year, the 27-nation European Union endorsed a plan calling for biofuels to make up 10 percent of the fuel for road vehicles by 2020.

But environmentalists, international groups and some countries are becoming increasingly wary of biofuels, which they say could accelerate global warming by encouraging deforestation — and contribute heavily to the commodities price hike by diverting production from food crops to biofuel crops.

The draft calls on the international community to continue efforts “in liberalizing international trade in agriculture by reducing trade barriers and market-distorting policies.”

The document also echoes Ban’s call to increase food production by 50 percent by 2030 to meet rising demand.

Ban predicted that as much as $20 billion may be needed each year to increase food production.