Food security remains a critical issue for the international community. In 2012, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated that approximately 868 million people in the world are undernourished (FAO 2012). Almost all of the chronically hungry people, 852 million, live in developing or large emerging market countries, representing 15 percent of their populations (FAO 2012). Yet, it has been determined that world agriculture produces adequate output to supply everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories per day (FAO 2010). The statistical findings of the FAO indicate that there is already a sufficient amount of food produced to meet the nutritional needs of the global population; however, malnutrition is still one of the leading causes of human suffering.
This discrepancy is largely a result of the existing disparities in food distribution and access to food. For instance, just 36 countries are home to 90% of the children in the world who suffer from stunted growth or chronic malnutrition (WHO 2011). On the other hand, the prevalence of overweight and obese individuals is highest in the WHO Region of the Americas (62% for overweight and 26% for obesity) (WHO 2010).
With the world population extrapolated to 9.6 billion by 2050, food production must increase significantly (50-70%) to meet the future demands of an increasing world population (UN 2013). However, while the international community needs to work towards enhancing production in order to respond to the inevitable increase in consumption, it also needs to address food loss and distribution issues, which have the potential of increasing the efficiency of the whole food chain.
The Inadequacy of Food Distribution Chains
In order to close food gaps and allow everyone to have access to high-quality nourishment, the international community needs to address three main problems with current distribution systems that affect both consumers and producers: “the lack of markets, the inadequacy of transportation to markets, and the inability to afford the costs of production and consumption” (MIT 2013).
About 16% of rural populations in developing countries lack convenient access to markets, which typically results in farmers being unable sell their crops (MIT 2013). The lack of adequate transportation in developing countries makes certain areas inaccessible and causes substantial delays in the movement of food supplies. Even with full access to markets, many people find themselves unable to buy food. The primary problem: lack of purchasing power and low incomes.
Another major problem is the extent of waste that occurs on a global scale. Roughly one-third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted globally —about 1.3 billion tons per year (FAO 2011). This food loss occurs throughout the supply chain, from initial agricultural production down to final household consumption. In medium- and high-income countries, food is often thrown away even if it is still suitable for human consumption. In low-income countries, food is lost during the early and middle stages of the food supply chain (e.g. during transportation), but much less food is wasted at the consumer level.
What has been done so far at the G20?
Food security has been identified as a relevant issue by G20 leaders (Murphy 2013). The G20 can have a significant impact on food security because the group accounts for 65 percent of all agricultural land and 80 percent of world trade in agricultural products (Murphy 2013).
Food security was first introduced on the G20 agenda at the 2011 Cannes Summit. In 2011 the Agricultural Ministers from the G20 put forward an Action Plan of Food Price Volatility and Agriculture Plan. This Action Plan advocated measures to promote greater investment, more balanced trade policy, better market information, policy coordination, risk management, and financial regulation. Implementation has proven to be an issue however. There was resistance to making meaningful policy changes at the domestic level, because the proposed measures threatened many domestic interests.
In the end, the G20 leaders endorsed only minor reforms to financial policies that affect commodity speculation at Cannes. They also delayed meaningful trade reforms. The most significant food security commitment was the unveiling of the Agricultural Market Information System — an initiative seeking to improve the collection and dissemination of market data. It was hoped that greater transparency, the provision of more information on production and trade, would calm food price volatility.
In contrast to the Cannes Summit, the 2012 Los Cabos Summit concentrated on the improvement of agricultural productivity, rather than focusing on structural economic forces that contribute to food insecurity. The Summit’s ten recommendations centered on information and education systems, agricultural research and innovation, increased investment and risk management.
The shift in the G20 discourse on food security — from price volatility (which fundamentally relates to access to food) to productivity (which fundamentally relates to availability of food) — is not particularly surprising. Politically, it is much easier to call for more information, more technology, and further investment than it is to get the G20 governments to commit to significant economic reforms.
Despite the lack of progress of previous summits, the Accountability Working Group Report on Development states that there has been 50% progress on the food security commitments since 2010 (G20 Leaders 2013). Promoting improvement in agricultural productivity is certainly helpful, but productivity measures would appear to be insufficient to address world hunger. It is clear that the food security problem is as much one of access to food as it is one of availability of food. Devising appropriate economic policies that affect access is as important as increasing food production.
The 2013 St. Petersburg Summit and the future of food security at the G20
This year, under Russia’s presidency, food security remained on the G20 agenda. Building on previous Development Working Group (DWG) achievements, Russia put special emphasis on deepening cooperation to address the global challenges of food security and nutrition over the long-term. In 2013, the DWG focused on in-depth discussions about a new set of actions primarily in the following food security areas: increasing agricultural production and productivity; addressing malnutrition by promoting integrated, nationally owned, nutrition-sensitive social protection and safety nets systems; developing an effective knowledge-sharing network on food security and nutrition; and furthering market transparency by improving communication and international policy coordination (Clapp 2012). To facilitate discussion and formulate concrete DWG deliverables on food security, the Russian Presidency organized the second meeting of the G20s Agricultural Chief Scientists (MACS) and a DWG seminar on Food Security through Social Safety Nets and Risk Management, which was conducted jointly with the World Bank.
Summit commitments, however, did not progress from the limited ones made at the G20 Los Cabos Summit. The exclusive focus remained on agricultural production and under-nutrition (G20 Russian Presidency 2013). The Russian host did not organize a meeting of agriculture ministers, preferring a more narrow focus on the group’s core mission of economic growth and financial stability. With Australia hosting the group in 2014, though, the traditional prominence of agriculture in that country’s economy and foreign policy could motivate significant discussion.
The G20’s narrow focus on increasing agricultural production in the past two years precluded any opportunity to mobilize efforts towards improving the function of global food distribution systems. Although an increase in agricultural production would be an important step toward meeting the nutritional needs of the expanding global population, production alone is insufficient to tackle food insecurity. Market mechanisms and policy measures related to the distribution of food are critically important because they determine who will have access to the food produced.
The market-related aspects of the food security agenda — distribution and access — are a good fit with the G20’s mandate to protect financial stability in international markets. Important structural reforms to international food commodity markets could be achieved through the actions of even just a few G20 member states. The benefits of such actions would be felt widely by countries affected by poor performance of international markets, resulting in unnecessarily high levels of food insecurity. It would be helpful in future G20 summits if leaders and their officials turned their efforts to economic policy reforms likely to enhance access to food, thereby improving food security for the world’s poorest people.
Clapp, J., ‘G20 and Food Security: Keep the Focus on Economic Policy Reform’ (2012), http://www.cigionline.org/blogs/g20-and-food-security-keep-focus-economi…
Food and Agricultural Organization, Hunger Portal (2012), http://www.fao.org/hunger/en/
Food and Agricultural Organization (2012), ‘The State of Food Insecurity’ (2012), http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3027e/i3027e00.htm
Food and Agricultural Organization, ‘Agriculture and Food Security’ (2010), http://www.fao.org/docrep/x0262e/x0262e05.htm
Food and Agricultural Organization, ‘Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent Causes and Prevention’ (2011), http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/mb060e/mb060e00.htm
Mission 2014 Feeding the World, ‘Inadequate Food Distribution Systems’ (2013), 12.000.scripts.mit.edu/mission2014/problems/inadequate-food-distribution-systems
Official G20 St Petersburg site, Priority topics (2013), http://en.g20russia.ru/docs/g20_russia/outline##11
Saint Petersburg Accountability Report on G20 Development Commitments (2013), http://www.google.ru/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CDgQF…
United Nations, ‘World population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 – UN report’ (2013), http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45165#.UirIgz-971U
World Health Organization, ‘WHO, nutrition experts take action on malnutrition’ (2011), http://www.who.int/nutrition/pressnote_action_on_malnutrition/en/
World Health Organization, Global status report on noncommunicable diseases (2010), http://www.who.int/nmh/publications/ncd_report_full_en.pdf