France is looking to secure a deal on steps to curb food price volatility at the G20 agriculture ministers meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Paris, the first of its kind.  French Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire has cautioned that “negotiations have been tough” and a deal on food security is not guaranteed.

Key proposals include:

  • More transparency on food supplies;
  • More regulation of derivatives markets and humanitarian food reserves, to be administered by the World Food Programme;
  • Limitations of export restrictions for humanitarian aid.

If approved, the deal will create an Agricultural Market Information System, hosted by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to log public and private commodity holdings, according to a draft copy that is circulating among the press. Increased transparency will provide more stability in the system and decrease market volatility by revealing the true gap between global supply and demand.

It is not clear how the plan will persuade the private sector to share secret supply information. Transparency is a highly politicized issue within the G20– countries like China, India and parts of Europe are also reluctant to share “strategic” information on their food stock and production levels.

Moreover, the French are not looking to offer any substantial concessions either. "It will be like the Pope's election. It will be white smoke or black smoke," Le Maire said. "Either you have a global deal or you don't have a deal at all."

CIGI expert Jennifer Clapp, writing for the Triple Crisis Blog, advises that the G20 should concentrate on the areas where they can have the most helpful impact by, “addressing the forces contributing to food price volatility that originate within the G20 countries themselves”:

  1. Focus on speculation on agricultural futures markets;
  2. Take a tough stand on biofuels;
  3. Address the issue of large-scale foreign land acquisition.

Clapp notes that the last priority unfortunately does not even appear on tomorrow’s agenda.  Also missing from the draft plan was a firm position on biofuels and support for the development of climate-smart agriculture.

International agency Oxfam, in a press release, is also calling on G20 Agricultural Ministers meeting in Paris tomorrow to reconsider the case for food reserves so that countries can better handle the kind of price spikes that left an extra 150 million people hungry during the last food price crisis. Oxfam says that G20 governments should agree to scale up national and regional reserves in developing countries and support public intervention of developing countries in buffer stocks managed in a durable, transparent manner. The G20 should commit technical and financial resources to establish these reserves and encourage other governments to do so.

Even if a deal is reached in Paris, agriculture ministers do not have the power to make binding decisions regarding regulation of commodities markets. Reform of derivative markets can only be implemented by finance ministers. Some officials, however, like Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, openly oppose France’s proposal for tighter regulation of the speculators and support open markets.  British officials have also noted that they see “little value” in more regulation.

In a recent post for the Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog, Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, examines what he believes to be the root causes of global hunger and food insecurity:

“Let's recognize where we have been wrong: hunger is neither the result of demographic problems nor just the result of a mismatch between supply and demand. It is primarily the result of political factors that condemn small farmers, the main victims of hunger, to poverty. These factors include insufficient access to land, water and credit; poor organization of local markets; lack of infrastructure; and lack of bargaining power against an increasingly concentrated agro-industrial sector.”

De Schutter’s key point is that hunger is a political problem. The president of Oxfam America, Raymond C. Offenheiser, similarly agrees that hunger is a “manmade problem with practical solutions”. G20 leaders have the political power to act and lead by example.

We will have to stay tuned to see what kind of plan agricultural ministers put forth. It will also be interesting to see what kind and how much language on food security is included in the leader’s communiqué along the road in Cannes.  One assumes, tongue-in-cheek, that the leaders will not be declaring “let them eat cake”, but a lot can happen in the crazy world of politics between June and November...


Deanne Leifso is a project officer with the G20 Working Group at The Centre for International Governance Innovation. She has her MA in political science from the University of Waterloo, Ontario.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.