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Food talks end with shaky pact

Nations pledge to lower trade barriers, boost production. No accord was reached on biofuel.

ROME - A world summit on hunger veered near collapse late yesterday when Latin American countries objected to a final, watered-down resolution designed to boost agriculture and control soaring food prices.

Ultimately, the declaration was adopted, with about 180 countries pledging to work to eliminate hunger and secure access to food "for all, today and tomorrow," through urgent actions including the easing of trade barriers and the supply of seeds and fertilizer to poor farmers.

No significant agreement was reached on the production of biofuels and what effect they have on the costs of food and on the environment. The resolution did not contain stronger language sought by critics of biofuels, which are strongly supported by the Bush administration.

The three-day summit was called by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, as an emergency response to food prices that officials say could threaten nearly a billion people with starvation.

U.N. officials said that between $20 billion and $30 billion a year was needed to fight hunger, which can also trigger social and political unrest - and has done so in some countries.

"This has reminded us that there are still millions of people in the world . . . who face famine," said Denzil Douglas, prime minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, who briefed reporters after the resolution was adopted. "I believe now resources will be mobilized quickly."

Numerous issues split the delegates, and there were moments that a final agreement seemed elusive.

Led by Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela, a veritable revolt by much of Latin America dragged negotiations hours past the original conclusion deadline and frayed the nerves of numerous participants.

One African delegate chided her colleagues for creating the "appearance of grandstanding . . . as people are dying."

Latin American delegates said the declaration was paying lip service to the starvation crisis. These delegates noted that the final document did not condemn subsidies maintained by wealthy nations, nor did it challenge the price-aggravating control exercised by big agricultural companies.

Argentina and Venezuela argued that the free-trade policies being promoted risked exacerbating poverty and hunger in Latin America. Argentina was especially forceful in objecting to language, which remained in the final document, that criticizes export curbs similar to the ones it has imposed.

Venezuela protested the resolution as "a step backward" because it treated the food-price crisis as the result of a convergence of factors rather than as a result of the structural flaws of capitalism.

The summit declaration "frankly neglects the vital needs of those who suffer from hunger," Cuban delegate Orlando Requeijo Gual said.

Another point of irreconcilable dispute was biofuels. The U.S. delegation, led by Agriculture Secretary Edward T. Schafer, welcomed the declaration's support for further study - timid language compared with the restrictions that some countries were seeking.

FAO Secretary-General Jacques Diouf said the gap between supporters and opponents of biofuels was too wide.

"The main thing is we brought attention to this problem" of hunger, he said at a late-night news conference. "It is not just a humanitarian problem. It's an economic problem, a political problem. It's a problem of peace and security if you don't address it."

Farm Bill Goes To Bush (Round 2)

Congress yesterday

sent President Bush a $290 billion farm bill for a second time, fixing a printing error that has threatened the delivery of U.S. food aid abroad.

The Senate passed

the legislation, 77-15, two weeks after it was discovered that 34 pages of the bill, which extends agriculture and nutrition programs, were missing from the copy Congress originally sent the White House. Bush vetoed that version; the House and Senate then overrode his veto.

All of the bill

became law, except for the part dealing with international food aid. The House voted to pass the full bill again, and the Senate's vote yesterday sends it to Bush, for what the White House says will be a second veto.

Congress plans

to again override the veto. Then international food aid programs will join the rest of the bill as law.

Bush says

the legislation is too expensive and

too generous with subsidies for farmers.

- Associated Press