G20 is right to focus on the hungry poor
Spiking food prices were finally given the attention they deserve at a meeting last month of agriculture ministers from the G20 group of major economies. However, while their action plan contains much to applaud, it is also notable for some glaring omissions.
In addition to the usual statements about the importance of supporting smallholder farmers and encouraging investment in developing country agriculture, the ministers laid out a practical framework for action in six specific areas. They launched laudable initiatives to enhance wheat yields, strengthen market information and transparency, and improve remote monitoring of crop production and weather. They established a rapid response forum of senior officials and asked the World Food Programme to look at setting up targeted emergency food reserves.
The detailed follow-up activities and timetables suggest that the G20 is determined to have more than just warm words to show for its efforts.
Ministers also recognised that international trade can play a role in improving food security and addressing price volatility.
Before the meeting, some developed country farm ministers seemed to suggest that everyone would benefit if their own producers were insulated from price fluctuations; they also called for tough action to regulate derivatives markets. These elements were fortunately missing from the final communique.
As I have argued, governments should respond to the recent volatility in food prices not by once again bolstering support for rich-country farmers, but by reinforcing protection for poor consumers in the developing world - for example, by establishing social safety nets. This approach is clearly reflected in the G20 declaration.
However, two other omissions are unfortunate and should be rectified as soon as possible.
First, ministers failed to tackle the problems caused by government support for biofuels - despite widespread agreement among analysts that current policies contribute to higher and more volatile food prices.
Second, they were unable to agree to tougher rules on the use of export restrictions - even though these measures have aggravated volatility and severely exacerbated food shortages in poor countries.
Despite these shortcomings, the G20 declaration stands out as a rare example of international collaboration in a world in which governments seem to find it harder than ever to agree on joint action. The communique must now be followed up with concrete action if the fine words are to turn into food on people's plates.
Professor Stefan Tangermann is a former director for trade and agriculture at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development