Times have changed, and the world’s problems need a global vision for action, says the chair of the EU Parliament Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development Paolo de Castro.

Paolo de Castro

The renewed position of food security at recent G8 and G20 Summits, from L’Aquila in 2009 (PDF) to Camp David in 2012, is an acknowledgement that a more sophisticated coordination at global level is needed to meet the new challenges, which are a sort of upside-down scenario in comparison to what prevailed in the last years of the 20th century, when food seemed relatively plentiful.

Since then many factors such as population growth as well as structural changes in food demand have been driving a new scramble for farmland and natural resources. In our book entitled The Politics of Land and Food Scarcity my collaborators and I interpreted this as a paradigm shift from a period of abundance to an era of new kind of scarcity.

What we left behind at the turn of the millennium was a trend of declining food prices, which had started after the World War II, and lasted decades. This long-term trend of price decreases seems over; the future will see increases coexisting with a high level of short-term instability: the evidence is the two food price crises in 2008 and 2010, affecting the world’s poor the most.

Everyone has to eat

However, in a globally integrated economy food security is no longer exclusively a problem for those living with less than $1.25 per day and spending the 70 per cent of their income to feed themselves and their family. It is a global problem affecting every one of us.

In 2008 and 2010 the food industry also complained about shortages, calling for a major political commitment in food security. The spike in cereal price in 2010 has had a renowned role in triggering some of the so-called ’Arab Awakening’ revolts, putting the epitaph ‘The End’ to some regional balances of power that seemed immutable. The phrase ‘democracies of bread’ was used by political scientists to refer to the Arab regimes of the Middle & Near East and North Africa in Nasser’s day to highlight the bread purchase subsidies as the seal of the social contract between rulers and their subjects. It is certainly no coincidence that the ‘Arab Awakening’ was initially triggered as riots for bread, a social symbol as well as a staple food.

In these recent months we are still watching the evolution of cereal prices with some concern, waiting for the decisions of big net wheat-exporting countries to see whether they will cap their exports or not.

In the era of abundance, when we talked about international trade our priority was how to open borders; now the question is how to avoid strategic commodity export restrictions. Only 15 years passed by, though it seems like centuries.

Roadmap to progress

The challenges posed by the new scenario require its being played out at two levels. At one level, we have to work on research and technological/organisational transfer, and at the other level, we need to review national and supranational policies that govern trade and food security.

From a policy perspective we also need to establish a roadmap for enhancing natural resource governance. The UN-FAO Committee on World Food Security (CFS) took a remarkable initial step with its endorsement of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. For the first time an intergovernmental body, through a negotiation process that involved all the parties from governments to civil society, adopted principles and internationally accepted practices for a better governance of natural resources. (See this blog post for more on the CFS.)

Even though this changing scenario is putting a strain on the responsiveness of our economic and political systems, genuine political action on the issue is yet to be taken. The Action Plan adopted in the 2011 G20 Summit is one of the elements onto which a scheme for coordinated international commitments can be grafted.

This plan has already set the stage for the birth of the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) to improve market transparency, and, within it, groups such as the Rapid Response Forum that hopes to promote early discussion about critical market conditions that can lead to common policies to pre-empt food crises.

This type of transparency is important, but may not be sufficient by itself. There is a need for a major coordination of food, agriculture and trade policy at the international level, for instance by taking initiatives to limit unilateral restrictive trade policies, such as the grain export caps put in place by India in 2008 or Russia in 2010, or more thoroughly discussing proposals such as the creation of an international system of emergency supplies, based on food reserves organised at a macro-area level.  These ideas have been discussed, but unfortunately they remain on paper thus far.

It is difficult to talk about coordination when referring to agriculture and food policies. For many reasons they are very closely linked to national interests, and as such very sensitive. Nevertheless, we should also become aware of the fact that the problems affecting the global food system cannot be solved by unilateral local solutions without a global vision, which has been the main shortcoming of the policies in tackling the food price volatility in recent years.

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About Paolo De Castro

Paolo De Castro is an Italian academic and politician. Former Italian Minister of Agriculture, Food and Forestry Policies, in 2009 he was elected to the European Parliament, and currently serves as chair of the parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. He has also served as professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Bologna.

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