Appropriate Institutions for Food Security: Two Years After the World Food Summit - What Has Changed?

24 February 1999
Public event

Speakers:

Dr Edward Clay, visiting Research Fellow, ODI.

Mr Richard Woodhams and Mr Bill de Maria, Assistant Executive Directors, International Grains Council.

Mr D. John Shaw, formerly the Econimics Advisor, WFP.

Description

The event spoke for the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food and the commitment to achieving food security for all no later than 2015. The purpose of the meeting was to examine the extent to which the world food security situation had changed since the 1996 Rome Declaration on Food Security.

Edward Clay opened the meeting by reminding the audience of the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security. He drew particular attention to its opening statements which re-affirmed the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food and the commitment to achieving food security for all no later than 2015. The purpose of the meeting was to examine the extent to which the world food security situation had changed since that declaration. The effect of changes in the international food economy and grain prices would be discussed. The effect of developments outside of the international grain markets upon achieving these commitments would also be covered, for example the economic crisis in Asia is reported to have set back achievement of the DAC targets by 5-10 years. The international institutional arrangements governing global food security would also be considered.

Bill De Maria began discussions by summarizing what has been happening to national policies in the major grain producing countries. He highlighted the move away from support to agricultural production towards a safety net approach. He stated that the markets were increasingly reflecting consumer demands and farmers were having to bear higher risks. In the future he argued, the price volatility that has been seen on the grain markets will only increase as support to agricultural production is reduced. There has also been a shift in agricultural policies with greater weight being given to environmental considerations at the expense of price support. Richard Woodhams also noted that producers are now able to respond to market conditions more rapidly, change the crops that they grow and react to impending shortages with much more speed.

De Maria stressed that the major question was not whether enough food could be produced to feed the world but whether it could be distributed to where it is needed. The problem of how developing countries will be able to purchase their food remains.

John Shaw then spoke to the issue of the global institutional dimensions of food security. His two major messages were that there was nothing new in the present arrangements and that we ought to learn from history. The demise of the World Food Council in 1993 (set up to co-ordinate the work of the UN on food and nutrition) has left an eroded UN system as the forum for discussion of food security. There are over 30 UN agencies with an interest in aspects of food security but the danger is that it becomes everybody's business and nobody's responsibility. There is a need for a focal point for food security issues at the highest possible level, where it can be managed as an international issue of central importance. One possible way of achieving this may be to set up an UN Economic and Social Security Council whose primary task would be to achieve world food security.

Shaw also noted that food security is not a stand-alone issue. It interacts with a number of other world problems eg world debt, population, water and human security which negatively reinforce one another. Aid agencies and donors then often compound the problems by dealing with them as separate issues rather than holistically.

Richard Woodhams then discussed the role of the Committee on Food Aid in achieving food security. The Committee is a donor forum and exists outside of the UN system. They are currently re-negotiating the Food Aid Convention which will be finalised, it is hoped, by the end of March, with the new Convention coming into effect in July. The FAC will still be cereals-based but there will be provision for donors to provide other foodstuffs eg sugar, micronutrients and root crops. It was unlikely that the amount of aid provided under the FAC would differ significantly from previous years although donors may be able to make additional commitments of cash for transporting food aid. The debate among the donor community, Woodhams said, was increasingly focussed on how the limited amounts of food aid available could be better targeted rather than on increasing the resource. Donors in the future will attempt to target their food aid on the neediest people in the most needy countries.

The floor was then opened to the audience:

  • One participant questioned whether a World Food Authority or similar body would be any more effective than the existing UN system given the increasing focus within countries of national interest and the changing global philosophy. It was argued, however, that the problem of food security does indeed require action at the global level. It requires a multilateral framework for bilateral action rather than cast-iron mechanisms for a global welfare state and needs to establish multilateral global principles within which markets will operate.

The importance of the Chicago Board of Trade in mitigating grain price volatility was mentioned. The same speaker stated that international regulation needed to be directed at residual risks that cannot be dealt with through private mechanisms.

One participant argued that as food aid is a drop in the ocean compared to private flows, the need is to examine where we stand in relation to the market. We do not intervene in the food sector, in response to shocks, in the same way that we do in the financial sector. It was argued however that although food aid is relatively small, it has greater significance in dealing with the immediate needs of the food insecure.

One participant suggested that futures markets provide an opportunity for countries to increase their food security but their problem is a lack of liquidity. Markets have a practical and educative function but developing countries need to be educated as to how they work and how to use them to their benefit. This was contested by another speaker who asserted that encouraging developing countries to outwit grain traders on the futures markets was not an appropriate way of dealing with food insecurity. The need to guarantee that the technology to play the markets is passed to developing countries was also stressed, as in the past developing countries have lost out in technology transfer.

It was argued that one should not only look at the role of food aid but should also examine how productivity could be increased. Even though donors are often sceptical because of disappointing results in the past, the issue needs to be addressed to provide a balanced solution.

One participant argued that it was time to move away from the quantitative commitments of the FAC towards a qualitative code of conduct along the lines of ODI's 1998 food aid policy review - perhaps even one for grain traders! A food stocks plan was also needed so there was monitoring and transparency about where the stocks were situated as well as a food security clause or wider food security package in the next WTO round. Another speaker added that if there was to be an increasing shift in the emphasis of quality rather than quantity, the IGC may not be the most appropriate forum for these discussions. The question of whether codes of conduct could ever be legally binding was also raised.

The lack of subsidies to agricultural production was criticised as increasing farmers' vulnerability and affecting production and productivity. It was argued that this may be true in some cases but that sometimes subsidies freeze patterns of production in ways that may not be appropriate to the demands of the market.

One participant suggested that reducing food insecurity is not a visible component of the commitment to poverty reduction and needs to be given a much higher priority.

In summarising Edward Clay, compared the highly volatile post-Uruguay Round, international food economy to the 'Big Dipper' on the South Shore at Blackpool. It needed nerves of steel and the health and safety directorate to ensure that it is safe to ride. But there are also those who cannot afford to ride at all.