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Ethics and economic globalization in food and agriculture

Globalization has become a widely used term in modern discourse, but its precise meaning is elusive. It is probably not possible, and would certainly not be useful, to seek a clear definition of the term. The focus of attention for the Panel here has been on processes of economic globalization in food and agriculture. The main features of globalization are the expansion of foreign private investment in agriculture; food processing and marketing, largely but not exclusively through transnational corporations; and an increasing international trade in food facilitated by the reduction of trade barriers. The consequences of these processes on the environment and on the livelihood of people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition must be examined; the large majority of those affected live in the rural areas of developing countries: most of them are small farmers and many of them are women.

Behind the investors are new and powerful technologies in informatics, biotechnology and genetic engineering. The basis of modern technology is capital-intensive research, but the capacity both for research and for technological development is extremely unevenly distributed, and investment flows are concentrated in profit-making areas.

At its first session the Panel observed that economic power is becoming more concentrated – the world’s 200 largest transnational corporations now account for one-quarter of the world’s economic activity, and they are often beyond the control of the governments in the territories in which they operate. Far too many of the world’s people remain marginalized, and the gap between the poorest and the most affluent groups keeps growing. The Panel noted with concern the serious imbalances in power arising from the concentration of economic power in the hands of a limited few. This huge disparity is negatively affecting funding for development. Resources are moving towards powerful private interests and away from public institutions.

The opportunities provided by the contemporary forms of economic globalization, consisting of reduction of trade barriers, privatization, encouragement of foreign as well as domestic private investment, and lessening of regulation are in general closely related to advances in communications, transport and new technical opportunities. These all make improved market efficiency possible, but only for those able to take advantage of the new conditions. An inbuilt inequality, which is the result of hundreds of years of unequal development, is in many ways reinforced and augmented by the increasing ubiquity of investment and trade. Most developing countries lag far behind the developed countries in terms of economic power, telecommunications and transport. The playing field is not level; developing countries are in a much weaker position than developed countries in world markets. These weaknesses are particularly devastating for the populations of developing countries, characterized by groups of hungry and marginalized farmers and those without land in the rural areas, who often have very little impact on economic policy decisions at the central government level.

Furthermore, those suffering from hunger and malnutrition are caught in a vicious circle. Insufficient and inadequate food intake results in a poor nutritional state and increases susceptibility to illness and low productivity. These conditions are aggravated by high incidences of serious diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. As local farmers seek to break out of a subsistence mode of farming, they are handicapped by the extremely high transaction costs of moving their products to more remunerative markets. Due to more liberalized trade practices, they risk finding themselves at a disadvantage when their products come to compete with those produced and marketed more cost-effectively by non-local producers. This situation may be beneficial for the poor urban consumer, but it generates problems for the local rural producer. Taking into account that the large majority of the hungry are farmers, sharecroppers and farm workers in the developing countries, this difficulty is a reality that must be faced.

One prominent aspect of contemporary processes of globalization is the transition from public services and regulations to privatization and deregulation. This issue leads to a number of consequences, some of which raise difficult ethical issues. One of the consequences discussed during the first session of the Panel (2000) was the decline in public funding of agricultural research. Increasingly, certain aspects of agricultural research is carried out by private corporations, whose interest in addressing the needs of small farmers in developing countries is limited.

Another consequence of the globalization of the market concerning goods and services is that the space left for national, democratic governance is reduced. While the effect of decisions made by the most powerful states and the international institutions dominated by them is felt throughout the world, persons living in other countries have little or no influence – through voting or by means of any other form of participation – on many of the measures and regulations affecting them.

What we observe today and call globalization refers to a number of disparate processes affecting different groups of people in different ways. Some will find that these processes generally produce positive results, while others may experience only negative implications. From the ethical standpoint of the Panel, we need to know not only where we are going at present, but also where, from an ethical point of view, we want to go. Ideally, we should look forward to a global society in harmony with Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”

The ethical concerns underlying the approach by the Panel require efforts to balance economic freedom of action with ethical solidarity as required by human rights and ecologically sustainable use of natural resources that respect the natural environment. While it is necessary to study the impact of current trends of globalization, it is even more important to reflect on where we want to go and how current developments can be positively affected from an ethical perspective.

The market cannot be the sole governor of social and economic processes. We should be seeking the movement towards a global society that will provide equal opportunities for all, rather than focusing on economic globalization, which gives the prime benefit to those who are already the strongest actors in the global economic system. Global governance is required for equitable advancement of benefits, particularly for those who are disadvantaged at present, and to offset risks and negative consequences. Global governance must be managed in a decentralized way by states, cooperating within multilateral institutions to harmonize their interests and ensuring broad, general participation and avoiding the hegemony of just a few states.

States have the primary responsibility within their own territory and must recognize their ethical responsibility for the prevention of hunger and for ecological sustainability. The present direction of globalization tends to undermine the capacity of public institutions to ensure a reasonable redistribution that could protect and facilitate opportunities for those who would otherwise suffer from the shocks of transformation. At present, there is also a trend to transform public goods into private property. Appropriate legislative frameworks for reform are required in order for states to fulfil their responsibilities.

Market globalization must be matched by responsible and responsive global governance through institutions capable of ensuring the enjoyment of human rights – including the right to adequate food and to be free from hunger – to everyone. The international community, through its institutions and organizations, must recognize its duties to offset the negative consequences of globalization on a very unlevel playing field, and to advance conditions that generate equal opportunity for all.

Significant achievements in the reduction of hunger cannot be obtained in the globalizing world unless states and the organized international community recognize their obligation to adopt and implement appropriate regulations. At the international level, it is essential to strengthen the role of multinational institutions such as FAO in order to take sufficiently into account the concerns of those who are not presently benefiting, or who may even have been damaged by contemporary processes of globalization.

From an ethical perspective, priority must be given to those who are most at risk from food insecurity, while ensuring that all measures adopted for such purposes respect the dignity of the individual and are ecologically sustainable. The issues of globalization should be re-conceptualized in terms of a global ethical commitment to guide policies for investment, aid and trade, with a view to universalizing the enjoyment of human rights, especially the right of everyone to food and to be free from hunger, and to respect the diversity of human cultures. It might be advisable to develop a code of conduct for economic globalization to avoid certain negative consequences and to ensure better and more equitable sharing of benefits for all.

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