Three Perspectives on the Status of Global Food Security

By Laura Reynolds

On April 20, the Heinrich Böll Foundation hosted a meeting and discussion entitled, “Addressing the Global Food Crisis: Assessing Progress Since 2007.” Three speakers, Timothy Wise from Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, Karen Hansen-Kuhn from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), and Neil Watkins from ActionAid USA, discussed whether on-the-ground progress has been made to provide greater food security around the world.

Agricultural development must focus on building the capacity of smallholder and women farmers. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Timothy Wise presented the findings of his recent report, “Resolving the Food Crisis: Assessing Global Policy Reforms since 2007,” co-authored with Sophia Murphy of IATP.

“This is considered a new era in agriculture,” said Wise, citing that the prices of rice, corn, soybeans, and wheat in the next decade are projected to remain 50-100 percent higher than they were at the start of the 21st century.

In the four years since the crisis, some encouraging signs of progress in the food system have emerged. Multilateral organizations and funders, including the United Nations and the World Bank, have increased their commitment to agriculture and rural development. These organizations have recognized that smallholder farmers are important in today’s food system, and can play a key role in achieving regional food security. And policymakers, nongovernmental organizations, and donors have more fully acknowledged the world’s resource constraints, including limited and changing water supplies in many regions, and the role that climate change will have in agricultural development in the coming decades.

But problematic policies persist. Countries continue to rely on market-based solutions to food and resource shortages, rather than the more controversial need-based reallocations of resources. And domestic food production continues to have a lower priority in funding projects than connecting producers to the export markets.

Karen Hansen-Kuhn discussed the state of food price speculation, and any reforms that have taken place since the crisis. Private investors can bet, or speculate, on what the price of a food commodity will be in the coming weeks or months. Hansen-Kuhn showed that food commodity prices are directly correlated with the number of futures contracts, or the contracts that investors sign when they bet on prices, and both spiked in 2007-2008.

Hansen-Kuhn pointed out the encouraging steps that multilateral organizations have taken to regulate price speculation. The UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has prioritized food price volatility as an area of study, and in 2011 it published a report entitled “Price Volatility and Food Security.” And in the United States, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in July 2010, called for maximum limits on the investment of a single speculator, as well as improved transparency in all speculation.

But she also pointed to some steps backward in speculation reform: countries in the Group of 8, or G8, and Group of 20, or G20, have resisted the investigation and findings of the CFS, and have not responded to their calls for increased regulation. And implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act has been slow and uneven, with many legal challenges delaying its having a real effect on speculation.

Neil Watkins, Director of Policy and Campaigns at ActionAid USA, discussed the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), a multilateral body that funnels pledges from the G8 and a few other countries to agricultural development projects in developing countries. Watkins praised the public-sector branch of GAFSP for its democratic and inclusive governance structure. It is governed by a steering committee of 12 voting members, consisting of six donor-country representatives and six developing-country representatives. The committee also has 11 non-voting but fully participating members, including ActionAid and farmers’ organization leaders from Africa and Asia.

But Watkins argues that “GAFSP could do more to incentivize ‘innovative’ projects that actively target the poorest and most marginalized farmers [with a priority on agro-ecological practices], not just to scale up existing projects.”

Watkins, Hansen-Kuhn, and Wise all expressed the need for the G8 and G20 countries, which will meet this June and July, to help food-insecure countries implement their own individualized plans for agricultural development, rather than continuing to impose top-down, ‘one-size-fits-all’ development programs.

What do you think governments and organizations should do to improve global food security?

Laura Reynolds is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project.

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