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 voluntary guidelines for governance of land tenure and also for international investment in agriculture.
A 2017 evaluation of the work of the CFS was broadly positive but suggested that it should seek ways of achieving greater traction for its policy ideas within national governments.
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 2016 the agency supported 82.2 million people in 76 countries, requiring contributions of $5.8 billion. About the same number receives assistance from international aid agencies.
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.
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. These conditions add time and expense to the delivery of food aid.
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.
Dependence on the US government and its conditions therefore distorts the governance of food aid. In addition, there is considerable anxiety that the Trump administration will take advantage of the 2018 US Farm Bill to impose further conditions that bolster US farmers.
World Trade Rules
Whilst hunger in the world’s poorest countries is invariably linked with shortcomings of their own governments, the institutions of the modern globalised economy are far from blameless. In particular, the world’s current trade regime for agriculture has failed to engineer fair access to global food 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. Africa pays $35 billion per annum for its food imports, a sum sufficient to deliver universal coverage of electricity on the continent.
Farms in Norway and Switzerland 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 this level of support will fall, due to the abolition of export subsidies for agriculture from 2018, the total is likely to remain astronomic compared with 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. And 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
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.” This challenge to governance of global financial markets has not yet been tested, due to the benign combination of favourable harvests and falling oil prices in recent years.
However, global food commodity prices are inherently volatile, thanks in part to fickle weather conditions and the sensitivity of operational costs of modern farming to the price of oil. The apparent absence of any serious initiative to review commodity trading in response to the SDG may yet prove an embarrassment to market regulators.
Concern about excessive volatility is entirely justified by memories of unprecedented hikes in world food prices in 2007/08 and 2010/11. The impact on poor families, obliged to spend most of their incomes on food, prompted a flurry of investigations into whether markets accurately reflected 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.
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.
more Food Security briefings (updated May 2018)
Food Security Definition and Global Divide
Right to Food
Sustainable Development Goal for Food
Causes of Food Insecurity
Solutions to Food Insecurity
Source material and useful links