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June 24, 2011

Verdict on G20 food summit? Dismal, please try harder

June 24, 2011
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Agriculture is a hot potato (sorry…) in most countries’ domestic politics. Think rioting French farmers, US agribiz lobbies or the long death-by-agriculture of the WTO Doha round. So perhaps the most notable thing about the G20 agriculture ministers’ meeting that ended yesterday was that it took place at all – it was the first ever meeting of its kind. It shows just how globally important the topic of food prices and production have become.

Cling to that, because the actual result was dismal – the classic vacuous summit fudge of empty rhetoric, calls for more transparency



(who could oppose that?) and kicking the can down the road through buck-passing (asking the finance ministers to look at speculation) and ‘needs more research’, with a few baby steps in coordination. No regulation, no obligation, no new money.

Below is a more detailed verdict from Oxfam’s G20 geeks, and you can read similar damning commentaries from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Food or the Guardian’s Felicity Lawrence. We launched the Grow campaign in part because we feared that the discussion of how to feed the world over the next 40 years would ignore issues of power, inequality and sustainability – this meeting fully confirms those fears.

Biofuels: Verdict – Poor
There were high hopes that Ministers would tackle flawed biofuels policies after calls for action by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others. However, while Ministers agreed to look at the links between biofuels production and food price volatility they failed to take any concrete measures aimed at reforming biofuels policies or adjusting biofuels targets when food supplies are endangered. Countries suspected of blocking progress include the US, Brazil, Canada and France. The US Government’s biofuels laws meant nearly 40 per cent of US corn crop went into ethanol production rather than food production in 2010 – as the second food price crisis in the space of 3 years began to hit.

Food reserves: Verdict – Poor
Agriculture Ministers agreed to look into bolstering emergency reserves which provide food to people in crisis situations. This is a small step forward however this approach only deals with some of the impacts of high and volatile prices and fails to address the causes.  G20 Ministers failed to recognise that strategic food reserves or buffer stocks also have a critical role to play in helping poor countries cope with extremes food price volatility. A global grain reserve of just 105m tonnes would have been enough to help avoid the food price crisis in 2007-8. The cost of maintaining this would have been $1.5 billion or just $10 for each of the extra 150 million people who joined the ranks of the hungry as a direct result of the last food price surge. 

Speculation: Verdict – Inconclusive
This is the top priority for the French Presidency. The G20 Agriculture Ministers agreed to explore the links between speculation and food price volatility and to look at mechanisms for regulating excessive speculation on the commodity markets.  This is an issue which Finance Ministers will take up when they meet in July.

Transparency: Verdict – Pass
Agriculture Ministers agreed to set up system to provide information on agricultural production and food stocks held by countries around the world. This will help ensure countries and the international community has some of the information they need to analyse the global food situation and take action to avert a crisis. Unfortunately Ministers stopped short of requiring agribusinesses – which dominate the trade in many staple foods– to disclose information on the stocks they hold.  According to one estimate Cargill, Bunge, and ADM control nearly 90 per cent of global grain trading between them.

Insurance Mechanisms:  Verdict – Poor
France pushed forward market based proposals for hedging instruments that would enable vulnerable countries to insure themselves against future food price shocks.  Because the proposals fail to address the causes of price volatility they are unlikely to succeed.   Without action to regulate and increase the transparency of global commodity and futures markets the measures are more likely to benefit the financial institutions which provide the insurance rather than poor food insecure countries which are purchasing it.  In addition, poor smallholders who will not be able to access these mechanisms. Oxfam believes resources would be better directed at other instruments to manage risk such as buffer stocks.

Investment in agriculture: Verdict – Fail
Agriculture Ministers agreed that more investment is needed in agriculture. However, they focused on the need to support private investment in agriculture, rather than agreeing any concrete measures to support poor producers in developing countries who offer the greatest potential to sustainably increase global agricultural yields and tackle hunger. Investing in women farmers could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 per cent. 

Climate change: Verdict – Fail
Rich counties failed to even acknowledge that climate change is major cause of food price volatility. Climate change is estimated to have increased the amount we spend on food worldwide by $50bn a year.

Hard to exaggerate just how disappointing a response this is to the kinds of impacts of the food price spike that we are seeing on the ground. Official communiqué here [h/t Glen Tarman].


  1. Yes, dismal. I’d not hold hope of more action just by calling for more action. Suggest the snag is that the political process is tuned to seek improvement of symptoms not redesign of systems. And the thinking process is tuned to look for change mainly within the food system not the global whole system.

    Well done Oxfam for starting to look at fixing the whole system. The big institutions look stuck so there is every opportunity for NGOs to shape up radical problems-in-reverse proposals for both the whole system and the food subsystem.

  2. AMIS and alert system without further market regulation will just give speculators more fuel to run alone. G20 proposal is naive in expecting spontaneous collaboration from the trade, who in fact live on their research on market fundamentals. You should add Dreyfus to your list, so completing the ABCD.

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