Spotlight G20: The Food Security Agenda – Making positive change or passing the buck?

Jennifer Clapp

When it comes to food security and agriculture, the G20 seems to be all too willing to take the credit while passing the buck. It wants to set the agenda on world food security. But it has been reluctant to require the G20 governments themselves to coordinate regulatory changes to address high and rising food prices or put the kind of money needed into agricultural investment in the world’s poorest countries. Rather, it seems to be passing on responsibility for establishing rules and governance mechanisms to address food security onto others, while at the same time blocking others from discussing measures that might request changes to the G20’s policies.

This approach was made clear with the G20’s Action Plan on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture adopted by the group’s agricultural ministers in June 2011. The G20 largely failed to tackle the big issues that it could meaningfully address such as commodity speculation in financial markets, market-distorting biofuel policies and agricultural trade practices that disadvantage the world’s poorest countries — all activities that take place mainly in the G20 countries and which have been associated with rising food insecurity.

Instead of taking action where the G20 could make the most constructive contribution, the Action Plan offered the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS). The information system is based on the assumption that more information will improve food markets. Although it is still early days with AMIS, it is unclear whether it will do much in terms of calming volatile food markets. (See my earlier post on this topic.)

At the same time, the responsibility for this new mechanism was foisted onto the FAO in conjunction with other international organizations without much if any additional support from G20 governments. Indeed, as the scoping report for AMIS made clear, the intention was to operate the initiative on a very limited budget. So rather than requiring its own members to make regulatory changes that could rebalance food markets, it took the easy way out and set up a new initiative that someone else would have to pay for and administer.

Will this year be any better for the G20’s food security agenda? As host of the G20 in 2012, Mexico has made food security one of five key priority areas under its leadership. As an agriculture-based developing economy that is also dependent on world markets for food imports, Mexico could draw attention to the plight of other developing countries who are in a similar situation. In particular, it could emphasize the role that biofuels, financial markets and trade policies play in exacerbating food insecurity.

But this does not seem likely. A recently posted G20 discussion document on food security coauthored by Mexico’s Undersecretary for Agriculture does not go much beyond last year’s Action Plan.

Carefully avoiding discussion of the global economic forces that have contributed to high and volatile food prices, the report’s suggestions largely revolve around the idea that more food production will end hunger. It calls for the development of genetically modified crop varieties to increase production, and more private sector investment to bring modern farming techniques (especially sustainable ones) to farmers. And if that doesn’t work to calm food markets, then volatile prices can be managed through new tools such as crop insurance and old tools such as contract farming. The logic of the latter is that if farmers and food companies know prices in advance through contracts, then they are less affected by food price volatility.

The problem with each of these suggestions is that they carry their own risks and need careful oversight if they are to achieve the intended goals without causing additional harm. Agricultural biotechnology, as the report acknowledges, needs close management to ensure that it doesn’t pose ecological or health risks. Private investment in agriculture, including investment in both land and production, requires rules to ensure transparency, mitigation of risk and sharing of benefits (indeed, the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment and the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure have been launched to keep watch on this, and have entailed a huge amount of work). Sustainable agriculture requires strong financial support and policies that discourage unsustainable farming methods. And insurance schemes and contract farming require rules that protect farmers from being exploited, as stressed in a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

Each of the strategies outlined in the G20 paper, in other words, requires its own complex governance arrangement to ensure that it makes a meaningful contribution to food security without causing additional harm. Such arrangements need to be well-funded and provide accountable oversight.

But these factors do not seem to be a major concern for the G20, especially because it can easily pass the costs of governing these initiatives onto others. Meanwhile, by stressing certain approaches over others, its agenda steers global discussions away from central areas of the broader food security debate such as the role of biofuels, trade policies, and financial markets.

It appears as though the G20 is trying to actively steer the global food security agenda while forcing others, particularly the UN, to implement its initiatives. If the G20 is to take food security seriously, it should focus on measures that capitalize on the unique position of the G20 countries. If it is unwilling to do this, then the food security agenda should be left to forums that have wider representation and input, especially if those wider forums are going to be responsible for implementing food security initiatives in any case.

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