This week’s first ever meeting of G20 agricultural ministers in Paris marks the birth of a new era of global collaboration on food policy. As food prices reached record highs earlier this year, and rapid urbanisation continues to change the complexion of global resource needs, this is an opportune moment for political action to determine a plan to tackle food insecurity.
The severity of rising prices in the developing world became clear in 2007-08 when food related riots broke out in three-dozen countries, leading to the violent ousting of heads of state in Madagascar and Haiti. This has been underlined by the ongoing Middle East turmoil, where food prices played a key role in sparking revolutionary sentiment. It is well documented that a hike in the cost of bread – coupled with widening socio-economic inequality - was a key driver in Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution that then spurred regional uprisings based on similar grievances. These episodes confirm the emergence of food as a security issue.
To mitigate future price volatility, agricultural envoys are discussing the collection of data on the stockpiles of major staples including corn, rice and wheat. The information provided by this Agriculture Market Information System, would reduce the uncertainty faced by farmers and markets. This recommendation builds on an interagency report commissioned by the G20‘to protect the most vulnerable’, a somewhat incongruous demand for an organisation that does not include the voices of the poorest countries in its negotiations. And, it is precisely this incongruity of a gathering where big powers discuss their own actions, which adversely impact poor economies the most that will truly test the developmental will power of the G20 membership.
Foodstuffs have been squeezed due to pressures on both supply and demand. Yields already stretched due to climatic change are being further reduced by the consequences of land overexploitation and unsustainable irrigation practices that are depleting water tables, and thus causing soil erosion and desertification. In recent times, high oil prices have also affected production costs.
These supply side deficiencies have been matched by higher demand for crops from industry in industrial countries (for biofuels, subsidised by many G20 members, and grain intensive livestock feed) and shifting global demographics (a rising population and the growing calorific expectations of growing affluence in emerging economies).
The imbalances between supply and demand have been compounded by the financial practices of both governments through quantitative easing and traders through artificial the manipulation of markets i.e. betting on foodstuffs in the same way as other soft commodities. Emblematic of this was the 2010 purchase of 241,000 tons of West African cocoa by a London-based investment fund, which immediately drove global prices up to a thirty-year high.
This has spawned what Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute, has termed a ‘new geopolitics of food’ whereby the trend of land acquisition to secure ‘parochial interests at the expense of the common good’ is increasing the spectre for conflict.
In bypassing market insecurities and leasing tracts of productive land, rich net-importers of food are aiming to feed their own populations into the future. The increasing incidence of foreign investments of this kind in countries such as Ethiopia, Mali, Kenya, DRC, Sudan, and Zimbabwe that suffer their own nourishment problems have sparked claims of a neo-colonial land grab. Although many of these deals can equally be understood as the outcome of dubious governance, it is questionable whether G20 nations such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia, protagonists in the pursuit of foreign agricultural land, can be truly committed to curbing these practices.
With the inclusion of India and China, countries with development issues of their own, the G20 is an improvement on the G8, but this week’s conference hardly represents democratic engagement in the governance of global food. China and India are amongst the G20 members most vehemently against the proposed information database, as aside from the practical considerations they are concerned about losing competitive advantage control over prices.
The region with the highest prevalence of hunger, sub-Saharan Africa, only has one representative at the meeting (South Africa). It is here, where income to food purchase ratios are highest that price volatility hurts most as higher costs reduce the quantity and quality of food consumed thereby raising the threat of chronic malnutrition. In order to implement a truly transformative security architecture for food, countries of the G20 will have to overcome self-interest and consider the millions of poor people in countries not at the negotiation table.
Marco Picardi is a founding director of the Centre for African Development and Security (www.cads-cdsa.org) in London. Currently he is leading on a research project on urbanisation in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo with the British Institute in East Africa. He holds an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.