Food Price Volatility: What Was and Wasn’t Said in the Leaked Report to the G-20

Jennifer Clapp

Triple Crisis is pleased to welcome Jennifer Clapp as a regular blogger.

Despite the slight dip in the FAO food price index in March, global food prices still remain 37 percent higher than they were at this time last year. In this context, eyes are fixed on the upcoming G­20 meetings where France, as host, has pledged global leadership on the issue of commodity price volatility.

A confidential draft report prepared by 9 international organizations for the G­20, leaked in late March, gives us a glimpse into the analysis on volatility in food and agricultural markets that informs the G­20.

In some ways, the document moves the discussion in important directions. It recognizes the significance of addressing food price volatility if the global community is to make progress on improving food security for the world’s poorest people. It acknowledges that there is a role for stringent regulation of agricultural commodity futures markets, although it does not pick a side in the heated debate over whether futures markets themselves are the major cause of recent episodes of price volatility.

In other ways, however, the report’s analysis and recommendations fall short. In particular, it lacks balance on at least two important issues:

The first is the report’s interpretation of the role of trade policies. It is not surprising that it denounces trade protectionism as an impediment to food security. A large amount of text is devoted to what it deems “inappropriate policy responses” of governments, namely food export restrictions and hoarding. The report points out that some 25 countries imposed such restrictions in recent years. Although not explicitly stated, these were mainly developing countries that had recently opened up their agricultural markets and found themselves exposed to global food price swings. Among the report’s recommendations is a call for the G­20 governments to immediately strengthen trade disciplines on export restrictions.

The strong focus on the role of food export restrictions compares with scant mention of other forms of trade protectionism that have fuelled food insecurity in poor countries. Developing countries, for instance, blame longstanding domestic agricultural subsidies in rich countries for dampening their own farmers’ production incentives. This distortion of agricultural markets, at least in part, is why many of the world’s poorest countries have gone from being net agricultural exporters in the 1960s to net agricultural importers today.

The report calls on G­20 governments to complete the Doha Round agriculture talks. But these talks have been effectively stalled since 2008 precisely because of the rich world’s unwillingness to reduce domestic farm subsidies and allow poor countries to have strong safeguard mechanisms that enable them to block surges of subsidized imports when it threatens their farmers’ livelihoods. Whether a “successful conclusion” to the round will incorporate provisions to rebalance the rules remains to be seen.

A second key imbalance in the report is its analysis of the role of biofuels in feeding food price volatility. The report recognizes that increased investment in biofuels has pushed up food prices by diverting grain out of food markets. But it fails to provide an in-depth analysis of the factors that have contributed to this trend or the relative impacts on the environment and food security of first generation, food-based biofuel feedstocks versus second and third generation feedstocks. The report’s cursory analysis of the issue only vaguely alludes to the use of trade measures that favor domestic feedstocks, as well as biofuel subsidies and mandates as exacerbating the problem.

Rather than suggest a global agreement to immediately curtail these market-distorting practices and limit the use of food-based feedstocks in biofuel production, the report only notes that such policies “warrant reconsideration.” The recommendations that follow call for further study of the issue, contingency plans for when food and fuel uses conflict, and more integrated international biofuel markets. This is hardly tough talk, especially when compared to the report’s emphasis on food export restrictions.

The report is important as much for what it emphasizes as for what it does not.  It selectively chooses which “market distorting behaviours” deserve attention, perhaps reflecting the political weight of the key players behind the organizations that wrote it. While it is good to see the G-20 finally tackling the problem of food price volatility, it is important that the body fully debate all aspects of these important issues and not avoid the topics that make some players uncomfortable.

2 Responses to “Food Price Volatility: What Was and Wasn’t Said in the Leaked Report to the G-20”

  1. Timothy A. Wise says:

    Very helpful summary and critique. Despite its limitations, one of the things this document shows is just how far the public debate has shifted from the pre-food-crisis days. Here we have a somewhat unlikely collection of important institutional players — FAO, IFAD, OECD, WFP, World Bank, UNCTAD, IFPRI, UN’s HLTF — coming together to assess volatility and the suboptimal functioning of agricultural markets. It includes mention of market concentration in agricultural markets, the importance of smallholders in agricultural development, the need for transparency in speculative futures markets (so limits on OTC trading), and even a role for public grain reserves. Just three years ago, the market was king and neoliberalism ruled the public debate. No longer. This does not mean, of course, that we’ve won much of anything, just that the debate is on, the range of perspectives is broader, and there is broad recognition that deregulated agricultural (and financial) markets failed, as did the public policies that supported them.

  2. Jennifer Clapp is completely correct to point out that domestic agricultural subsidies in Europe and more importantly the United States have been able to extend the distortions of colonialism that were a major problem in the middle of the last century.

    Many young economists are busy teaching their college classes the same false beliefs I was taught way back in the Vietnam era. They believe, just as I once did, that efficient modern farmers who can produce as much as 1000 : 1 more per hour worked as those in the developing areas. But look at this figure carefully; first, it is for grain, a field crop that is apparently well suited for giant machines preparing, planting and harvesting huge acreages.

    Now pierce the veil of direct cash subsidies and see the even larger costs this really entails. Old and painfully ignored knowledge patiently keeps explaining the connection between North American topsoil erosion carrying fertilizer into the Gulf of Mexico and eutrofication of the gulf which creates dead zone instead of rich life where the Mississippi empties into the sea. On the Pacific, in California, the once lucrative salmon industry is gone; repeat, gone. This is all well hashed out but serves to support the need for emergency action in the face of determined destruction of all natural wealth unreachable to corporate methods of operation.

    The low production rural labor of subsaharan Africa is taught as unproductive in US economics classes, while in actual fact it is capable of outproducing corporate factory farms 2 : 1 per acre of land. Don’t believe it ? Check the book review in “Science,” March 11, 2011, page 1267, there you will see between the lines that US colleges are teaching an agricultural economic vision that depends upon removing the rural farmers from the land and introducing factory farms, which in the US depend upon semi-slave migrant labor.

    Interestingly, that article is juxtaposed with an article on entropy which explores information content in ordered systems. Few economists think much about entropy but in the case of Africa, the information content of rural farmers has been disrupted by colonialism, war, corruption and neoliberal world bank and IMF policies. Very small investments in education to reintroduce indigenous agricultural information content will reduce entropy, increase food production, reduce population growth through education the effect, and reduce environmental pressure of chemicals and fuel burning. Plus, people will be happier and be practicing democracy as new wealth and institutions grow.

    Democracy is the most efficient way to focus the intelligence of humanity, it is the key to progress. Democracy is anathema to corporatism, which is devoted to centralization of wealth and power rather than optimization of health and well being. Information growth and content is the aspect of life growing and flowering in the decay and chaos of surrounding entropy. Democracy is the bloom of the most advanced science and evolves with humanity and the cosmos. The force of military destruction and domination serves chaos, it can kill warm life and make it cold but cannot stop living determination for justice and free expression. Supporters of democracy are lovers of life and small farmers have a good way loving life. Higher food prices are good for small farmers as well as urban people who save huge investments required to receive them