UN plan to tackle food crisis gets a test-drive

The UN Secretary–General Ban ki-Moon will have to use all his powers of persuasion to get countries to agree to act on thorny issues such as trade restrictions, responsible for pushing up global food prices to their highest levels in over 30 years, according to a food policy analyst. 

At last week's food summit in Rome, the High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis, chaired by Ban, to test countries' response, circulated a draft plan to tackle problems posed by soaring food prices and low grain stocks especially on the world’s poor.

The plan involves a host of short-term and long-term measures that includes clearing away trade restrictions to make food accessible to all at reasonable prices; scaling up aid, introducing safety-nets, boosting food production and providing financial support to countries unable to afford food.

According to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), grain-based biofuels – whose production is supported by the United States and some European countries - accounts for at least 30 percent of recent food price inflation. Eliminating export bans that distort the trade in food would also help stabilise grain price fluctuations and could slash price levels by almost one-third.

The final declaration from the summit avoided strong language on biofuel subsidies and export bans. “But the Secretary-General [Ban ki-Moon] does have some power to persuade,” said Marc Cohen, an analyst with IFPRI. “Also, I do think we are in circumstances where not acting could have very negative consequences that would be embarrassing for governments. So the UN system does have some leverage on states.”

''I do think we are in circumstances where not acting could have very negative consequences that would be embarrassing for governments. So the UN system does have some leverage on states''

Food prices are at their highest level since the 1970s, a combination of falling stocks, rising demand, and fuel costs at a record high. But while the summit brought a much needed focus on investing in agriculture, there was no serious debate on strategies around safety-nets and means to ensure that pledges by rich countries to boost food production materalised, development agencies complained.

On the bright side, according to IFPRI’s Cohen, “there was much greater consensus on forging ahead with agriculture-based adaptation and mitigation strategies to address climate change and on rebuilding stocks in developing countries. Both of these were likewise controversial not too long ago, but their time seems to have come, and so the declaration had reasonably good language in these areas”.

New money ?

The UN plan, which Ban said would need as much as $15 to $20 billion a year, managed to elicit some funding at the conference. “Without wanting it, it became a pledging conference attracting donors and politicians' attention to concentrate on investing in agriculture and producing more food to address short term and long term objectives,” said Parvis Koohafkan, head of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Agency’s land and water division.

But pledges do not always materialise. “Implementation has always been a problem with these summits,” said Cohen. “Similar promises were made in two previous food summits in 1996 and 2002 with few results. Global hunger has barely declined since 1996, and is now getting worse in light of the current food crisis”.

Development agencies Oxfam and ActionAid pointed out that while many donors and agencies made pledges running into several billion dollars, it remained unclear whether it was “new money”.

Oxfam’s Alexander Woollcombe noted, “Some of the pledges of support to agriculture were made long before the food crisis. And will the money promised at the conference be additional to previous commitments; who will be spending it, and on what? Good ideas in Rome must be followed by cheques in Japan [where the G8 meets next month].”

jk /oa