Governance of Food Security

updated April 2017

Committee on Food Security
The 2007/08 food crisis inspired global governance reforms. These aimed to achieve greater consistency between national food action plans and to eliminate duplication between aid agencies. For this purpose the Committee on Food Security (CFS) was modernised to ensure that the views of governments and civil society would combine with those of the three major UN food agencies – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition, approved by the CFS in 2012, creates the opportunity for coherent and consistent policy to deliver global food security. The Committee has since published guidelines for governance of land tenure and also for international investment in agriculture.

Although these Guidelines are voluntary, there is optimism that the inclusive CFS process has marshalled a critical threshold of international support.

Food Aid
Food aid is not a sustainable solution to hunger but it has a vital humanitarian role to play in countries which cannot uphold the right to food for all, for whatever reason.

Monitoring food security throughout the world is the core mandate of the FAO, delivered by its Global Information and Early Warning System. Based on this information the WFP prioritises the distribution of food aid. In 2015 the agency supported 76.7 million people in 81 countries, requiring contributions of $4.8 billion. About the same number receives assistance from international aid agencies.

The US provides approximately 50% of all food aid but insists that most of its aid should be disbursed as surplus grain from US national stocks – and that the chain of delivery must be tied to US shippers and contractors. Most humanitarian experts advise that food should be purchased from surplus areas within the beneficiary country, not just on grounds of cost and delivery time but also to inject activity into the domestic economy. The 2014 US Farm Bill acknowledges the shortcomings of US distribution but instigates only modest steps of reform.

World Trade Rules
Whilst hunger in the world’s poorest countries is invariably linked with shortcomings of national and local government, the institutions of the modern globalised economy have given insufficient priority to the interests of the poor. Outdated and hidebound, the world’s current trade regime for agriculture has failed to leverage a meaningful presence in global markets for poorer countries. History betrays the injustice of this shortcoming.

Determined to support the dominant profile of small family farms in the aftermath of the Second World War, the European Common Agricultural Policy and the US Farm Bill both provided generous subsidies and protective tariffs. These policies proved successful, generating colossal internal food surpluses.

Ambitions of the poorer countries of the modern world to copy this approach remain unfulfilled. This is largely because they are bound by the system of open market rules adopted by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. At the same time, the richer countries refused to unravel their own protectionist model.

This hypocrisy remains a fundamental barrier to effective food security strategies in developing countries. Domestic markets continue to be undercut by cheap food imports dumped by rich countries. As a result, almost all the 48 Least Developed Countries are dependent on food imports, vulnerable to unpredictable world prices for 25% of their total consumption on average. Not until 2018 will WTO rules abolish export subsidies for agriculture.

Farms in Norway and Japan receive more than half of their income from their governments. The OECD estimates that 50 leading countries provided their agriculture producers with an annual average of $585 billion of support in the years 2013-15. Although falling in real terms, these subsidies remain astronomic compared to the UN’s estimate of the annual cost of eradicating hunger by 2030.

WTO rules performed poorly during the food price crisis of 2008-2010, failing to prevent bans on food exports introduced by India, Russia and other countries – actions linked by most experts to subsequent price rises and panic measures. In 2014, richer countries cited WTO rules in their opposition to India’s approach to implementing its Right to Food Act, legislation designed to raise the prospect of dignity to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.

Volatile Commodity Prices
Poor families, obliged to spend most of their incomes on food, are highly vulnerable to sharp rises in prices. Unfortunately, global food commodity prices are volatile, thanks in part to fickle weather conditions and the sensitivity of operational costs of modern farming to the price of oil. Although these variables have underpinned downward price movements in recent years, the inherent risk remains.

Traditional futures markets can dampen this volatility, allowing farmers in both rich and poor countries to benefit from rising prices, as demand for food increases. But the global crisis triggered by unprecedented hikes in world food prices in 2007/08 and 2010/11 prompted a flurry of investigations into whether markets accurately reflect underlying fundamentals of supply and demand.

The finger of suspicion pointed especially at the influence of speculative trades whose volume has mushroomed with the advance of sophisticated technologies – and the parallel retreat of  regulations.

The Sustainable Development Goals, approved in 2015, include a target to “adopt measures to ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets and their derivatives.” The European Union has introduced regulations to curb speculation but there is concern that the measures have been watered down.

Land Grabbing
A perfect storm of open market demand in the aftermath of the food crisis of 2010/11 unleashed a scramble for agricultural land in developing countries. Major food importers, such as the Gulf States and South Korea, sought secure food supplies, having lost confidence in export markets. Although now reduced, the European target for biofuels required a land area which was self-evidently unavailable within Europe.

Several detailed studies confirmed fears of one-sided non-transparent deals between global purchasers and indulgent local or national elites. Weak land tenure was exploited to their advantage and local rights compromised by neglecting the principle of “free, prior and informed consent.” Environmental impact assessments were rare, especially in the context of water.

This evidence that solutions to the food and energy insecurity of rich countries were being pursued at the expense of the poor has provoked accusations of “neo-colonialism” and “land grabbing. However, foreign investment in land is not a new phenomenon and such strong demand could be exploited by host governments to deliver much-needed transfers of skills and technology, develop rural infrastructure and generate tax revenue.

In October 2014 the CFS approved the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems. European regulations encourage investors in land in developing countries to recognise the human rights of local communities and to respect these Principles.

Such measures have calmed the volume of so-called land-grabbing. However, many observers remain sceptical that global food security is ringfenced from the forces of globalisation in land investment.

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Kumi Naidoo, former international director of Greenpeace
explains why GM crops do not address the root causes of world hunger.


In the aftermath of the world food crisis of 2008, attention focused on the activities of oil-rich food-poor Gulf states, often labelled as neo-colonial land-grabbing
from AlJazeera English

more Food Security briefings
Food Security Definition and Global Divide
Right to Food
Sustainable Development Goal for Food
Causes of Food Insecurity
Solutions to Food Insecurity
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