Bill Clinton’s confession


by Ben Lilliston • 10/27/08 • Last week was a time for confessions. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress that his 40-year faith in the self-correcting power of free markets had been misplaced, and declared himself in a “state of shocked disbelief.”

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Greenspan’s confession garnered front page news in the United States and around the world. But a confession by former President Bill Clinton the same day was just as remarkable. Clinton told a UN gathering that “we blew it” on managing the global food system. Then, as only Clinton can, he succinctly outlined where things went wrong. The Associated Press quoted Clinton as saying that we need to stop “treating food like it was a color television set…Food is not a commodity like others.” He went on to say, “We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves.”

Clinton sharply criticized the policies of the World Bank and IMF that pressured developing countries from supporting their own farmers and food systems, which forced poor countries to become more dependent on food imports.

Clinton went on to rip U.S. food aid policy for requiring the shipping of food to donor countries, rather than using a cash-based system that would more efficiently feed those in need while supporting local and regional food production in regions facing hunger.

Clinton’s speech was exciting and maddening. Exciting because he seems to have had his “Aha! moment” in understanding “food is not a commodity like others” and pushing for reforms that civil society groups, including IATP, have been advocating for during the last several decades. Maddening because his administration rejected these arguments for treating food differently. Instead, he and his appointed Trade Representatives and Secretary of Agriculture aggressively advocated for, and helped build, a global system of rules that severely limit the policy options for countries trying to reach food self-sufficiency— including passing NAFTA and the Agreement on Agriculture at the World Trade Organization.

Let’s hope that Clinton’s words will open the eyes of more policymakers at the national and global levels. Admitting that “food is different” is the first step on the road to recovery from blind faith in the magic of free markets. If food is different than TV sets, then governments must act to ensure the food system works. If food is different, then we must identify what type of food system we want and the policies we need to achieve those goals.

If Clinton wants to follow his speech with action, there is much he could do. He could start by throwing his support behind (and help to raise money for) the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IATP’s Steve Suppan served as one of the lead authors), which has outlined strategies to support food self-sufficiency based on traditional knowledge and already has the support of 57 countries. Clinton could play an important role in pushing for much-needed reform of U.S. food aid outlined in our 2005 report. And he could help launch discussions on how international and regional trade rules need to be reformed to reflect the growing consensus that “food is not a commodity like others.”