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Oxfam launches campaign for food policy change

WASHINGTON -- Oxfam, the international charity that played a big role in convincing the World Trade Organization to take up the issues of western African cotton growers in the Doha Round, has launched a new global campaign to achieve "food justic...

WASHINGTON -- Oxfam, the international charity that played a big role in convincing the World Trade Organization to take up the issues of western African cotton growers in the Doha Round, has launched a new global campaign to achieve "food justice in a resource-constrained world" that includes opposition to U.S. ethanol subsidies.

Contending that world food prices could double in the next 20 years because of population growth and climate change, Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser June 1 called for policy changes in the United States and other countries and said the new GROW campaign would be Oxfam's largest.

At a luncheon at the Newseum, a news industry museum in Washington, Offenheiser told a crowd of largely young activists that the campaign will consist of grass-roots mobilization, media contact, meetings with public and private sector leaders and attendance at events such as the meetings of the leaders of the G-20 countries.

"We will be big . . . we will be lively . . . we will be propositional," Offenheiser said.

In Washington and 36 other cities, Oxfam released a new report, "Growing a Better Future," which describes world food problems and proposals for change, as well as a five-point plan for changes in U.S. government policies.

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"Record spikes in food prices in 2011 have already pushed 44 million people into poverty, contributed to significant global instability and put pressure on the U.S. economy and our national security, diplomatic and humanitarian resources," the report said.

"The entire food system as we know it is fundamentally broken," Offenheiser said, noting that people are going hungry while there is much waste.

Steps to change

The five-point plan says that the U.S. government should:

n Provide aid to small producers in developing countries.

n End excessive speculation in agricultural commodities.

n Stop government support for corn-based ethanol.

n Change the U.S. food aid system by providing funds for local purchases of food in developing countries and end the requirement that food aid shipped from the United States be shipped in U.S. ships.

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n Work internationally to regulate foreigners' acquisition of land and water in developing countries.

Many of the attendees at the launch were active in church-related groups, and when a Methodist official asked what his group should do to further the campaign, Offenheiser said the group should lobby on Capitol Hill to assure funding for the Obama administration's "Feed the Future" program to help small farmers in developing countries. He also suggested opposing the continuation of ethanol subsidies, making sure the Dodd-Frank financial services bill is used to stop commodity speculation, encouraging local purchases of food aid and getting the U.S. government involved in the "land grab" issue.

Offenheiser said he thinks Oxfam has a greater chance to achieve its goals in the current budget because many of its proposals "would be cost-neutral if not beneficial for the taxpayer."

World food issues

The report did not limit its criticism to the United States. It said that the challenges Oxfam would address include the domination of the movement of most of the world's food by four companies and the lack of agricultural development in India.

Oxfam is known for using celebrities in its campaigns, and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who launched a zero hunger campaign that has been praised around the world, provided a video endorsing the campaign.

"We can't wait anymore," Lula said. "Political leaders and global companies must act now to ensure that all people can put food on their table. There are no excuses. We have the capacity to feed everyone on the planet now and in the future. If the political will is there no one will be denied their fundamental human right to be free from hunger."

At the June 1 event, Offenheiser was flanked by Oscar-nominated actor Djimon Hounsou; Olivier De Schuter, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food; Frances Moore Lappe, author of "Diet for a Small Planet" Elkanah Odembo, Kenyan ambassador to the United States; and Cheryl Smith, president of the Trillium Asset Management Corp. All of them spoke in favor of aiding small farmers in developing countries.

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Odembo said that small farmers should get a higher percentage of the food dollar and noted that he had worked for nongovernment organizations before he became a diplomat. Referring to the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization that was supposed to launch a trade round but failed, Odembo said, "I was in Seattle, and we turned it upside down."

Trade ministers who attended the Seattle meeting have said, however, that disputes between member countries had more to do with the failure of that meeting than the activists in the street.

Although Oxfam's activities are highly organized, the group, which started in the United Kingdom as a charity, has a mixed record of success in achieving policy goals. While it did succeed in putting the cotton issue on the WTO agenda in the Doha Round that was launched in 2001, that round still has not been concluded.

The Renewable Fuels Association and Growth Energy, which represents ethanol plants, countered Oxfam's claims that ethanol is an important factor in reducing the world food supply and raising prices.

Citing a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report that found bioenergy could spark investment in agricultural and rural transportation infrastructure and boost rural economies, RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen said that ethanol production had spurred investment in the United States, and that the same opportunities could be available in developing countries.

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