Shehzad Noorani/CP Photo
The life-and-death nature of food means it shouldn’t be treated like other market commodities.
It may not rank with the Summer of Love, but this season of warmth has witnessed a global victory for the intangibles that make life possible and worthwhile.
On July 30, negotiations at the World Trade Organization - perhaps the most socially and environmentally destructive body let loose on the planet since World War II - crashed and burned.
Southern nations at the Geneva talks, led by Brazil, India and China, refused to accept the unlimited "dumping" of surplus and subsidized Northern food exports that pushes poor farmers into bankruptcy.
The deal breaker was India and China's insistence on a "special safeguard mechanism" that could halt imports when domestic farmers are threatened by cheap imports - a first indication of the new food politics created by rising prices.
Since 2001, food fights have been responsible for the stalemate at the WTO. That's when European and North American governments committed rhetorically to provide development opportunities for Southern countries - but then didn't deliver.
The WTO, after all, was the centrepiece of the "new world order" designed by Washington's first Bush government. Global institutions of the old world order - the United Nations, World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization, for example - were created during the 1940s and 50s, when two superpowers tried to outdo each other helping former colonies to "develop" in pro-?U.S. or pro-?Soviet ways.
By contrast, the World Trade Organization, established in 1995, expressed the end of political competition (which one bestseller of the time christened the "end of history") and the beginning of cutthroat competition for economic control of the cheap labour and resources of the southern half of the globe.
In terms of food and ag, the WTO featured free access to Southern markets for heavily ?subsidized Northern grains and animal products, limited access to Northern markets for Southern fruits and vegetables, the dismantling of public programs in the South that protected local farmers from foreign competitors, and free access to Southern resources by Northern biotech companies.
Ever since, food and ag issues have been sore points. "WTO Out of Agriculture" became the international slogan of farmers and peasants, along with "Food sovereignty."
Contrary to the stereotypes about Southern and colonial economies, most Southern countries, 105 out of 140, are net importers of food, says Rosario Bella Guzman in The Global Food Crisis: Hype And Reality.
Many Southern countries became net food importers as a result of trade patterns enforced by the WTO. It was one thing during the 1990s to let in cheap Northern food imports when they kept prices low for urban workers (mostly peasants driven off their land by cheap imports).
But these countries soon faced the classic situation repeated whenever a monopoly uses loss-?leader prices to lure customers away from small competitors: prices shot up as soon as the small local competitors were finished off.
The recent outbreak of "riots" and strikes in over 40 countries of the global South gave a clear indication to Southern governments that they risked political suicide if they didn't do something to recreate their own capacity to grow food and provide food access.
Many have already begun creating production subsidies and distribution centres that permit them to control prices and availability of food.
Failure of negotiations "over an issue that concerns those who stand to be hurt rather than helped by globalization reflects a new distribution of economic power in the world," writes Sandra Polaski at the U.S.-?based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The new Southern resolve hit an immovable force - insistence from Northern governments that food and agriculture be treated as commodities like any other traded goods. This was the bedrock of the WTO.
But when push comes to shove, the market can't be the sole arbiter of life and death. This is why, before 1995, food was usually placed alongside police, education and water as "above and beyond" the market.
No, it isn't the end of history, but it could be the beginning of a new space for food and ag policy.
• Percentage of developing countries that are net food importers: 70
• Percentage of the globe's 845 million hungry who are farmers: 80
Top exporter of:
• Wheat: U.S.
• Grain: U.S.
• Sweet corn and maize: U.S.
• Skim milk powder: U.S.
• Cheese: EU
• Butter: EU
Sources: The Global Food Crisis: Hype And Reality, Rosario Bella Guzman; UN Food and Agriculture Organization