ROME (AFP) — Dozens of farmers' groups kicked off a forum in Rome on Sunday to coincide with the UN food agency's summit on food security with an impassioned plea for an overhaul of world agricultural policies.
"We have empty plates and we have empty policies," said Paul Nicholson of La Via Campesina, an international small farmers' movement.
"Let us protect and defend a farming system that feeds the world and cools the planet," he told a news conference held across the street from the Rome headquarters of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
The FAO is holding a summit from Tuesday to Thursday at which world leaders will discuss food security following runaway prices sparking riots across the world.
"Free trade policies have seriously damaged the food system over time, leading to the food crisis that we're facing today," said Maryam Rahmanian of Iran's Centre for Sustainable Development.
She complained of increasing marginalisation of the peasant movement, whose participation in the FAO summit will be limited to a presentation of the forum's conclusions to the gathering on Thursday.
On Sunday however, the FAO and the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) were represented at the parallel forum's first plenary session, and Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, was also on hand.
De Schutter last month joined the growing chorus accusing biofuels -- until recently cast as a miracle alternative to polluting fossil fuels -- of usurping arable land and distorting world food prices.
IFAD's Gunilla Olsen received warm applause for her comments.
"The food crisis is a reflection of a long and growing social crisis and policy crisis," she said. "There can be no more fundamental interest than not being hungry."
Rahmanian, who is on the forum's steering committee, told AFP earlier: "It's obscene that the food crisis is being used to push stronger on policies" promoting large-scale agriculture, biofuels and the use of genetically modified organisms and pesticides.
"There's been a huge occupation of the FAO by American interests," she charged.
Meeting with journalists on Sunday, the administrator of the US aid agency USAID, Henrietta Ford, spoke of a "second green revolution" for developing countries that would emphasise public-private partnerships.
"Collaboration between private sectors, donors, non-profit organisations, foundations such as the Gates Foundation... will provide a win-win scenario for business (and) farmers," she said.
Meanwhile Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Rome for the FAO summit, on Sunday rejected claims that biofuels made from sugar cane are contributing to the global food crisis.
Brazil is the world's number-two producer of biofuels, which have been widely criticised as exacerbating food shortages and diverting crops away from traditional food uses.
Lula said that biofuels from sugar cane -- such as that produced in Brazil -- "is not a threat to food production," although he denounced those sourced from corn and wheat.
Also Sunday, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe flew into Rome ahead of the FAO summit.
Mugabe is usually subject to a travel ban to the European Union but is able to attend UN forums.
A one-time regional breadbasket, Zimbabwe now experiences regular shortages of even the most basic foodstuffs such as a cooking oil, sugar and maize.
The 84-year-old leader caused outrage in October 2005 when he used a speech at the FAO to tell donor nations not to "foist" food on Zimbabwe and compared the then British premier Tony Blair to Italy's wartime dictator, Benito Mussolini.
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