June 20, 2011, by Simon Butt

Will G-20 give us a way to show commitment?

There is an old joke about a chicken and a pig that many of you will have heard before. It goes like this: What’s the difference between being involved and being committed? Answer: In a bacon and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, the pig is committed.

This may raise a smile but there is a serious point to be made about everyone involved in the food security issue – and I mean everyone. The researchers and academics, policy-makers and civil society are just part of the effort to improve global food security. The farmers, food manufacturers, retailers and everyone involved in supplying inputs to the food chain (and yes, that includes the oil companies) are also part of the food security puzzle. I could summarize this list by saying; producers, agri-business, regulators and NGOs all need to be signed up and showing commitment if we are to make sense of that puzzle.

This point should be easy enough to agree to, but it just poses another question: How do we get all these actors to show that commitment? At one extreme I don’t think it’s something that can be achieved by everyone signing a piece of paper – as far as food security is concerned actions do speak louder than words. Of course, there are currently various initiatives that encompass several of these players but a report just given to the G-20 may suggest a new tangible way of demonstrating commitment that will cost relatively little and could achieve a lot.

A ‘phalanx’ of international organizations has just produced a report for the G-20 on food price volatility. As well as FAO, the report had contributions from IFAD, IMF, OECD, UNCTAD, WFP, the World Bank, the WTO, IFPRI and the UN HLTF. (Yes, a phalanx is the appropriate collective noun.) And one of the key recommendations of the report produced by these heavyweight organisations is that food security will be enhanced if market information at the global level is improved. As the report says, “improvements in global market information and policy guidance could be achieved through a collaborative food information and policy initiative, the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS).” This could be one practical way to show commitment.

The G-20 report suggests that AMIS could be built on the model of JODI (the Joint Oil Data Initiative) which was launched in 2000 to improve information about oil markets. AMIS would involve the major food producing, exporting and importing countries and would require a body which could collect, analyse and disseminate information on a regular basis regarding the food situation and outlook, as well as food policies.

To some observers it may seem strange that there is an absence of such information and analysis in the agricultural commodity markets in the 21st century. But to those of us who are old enough to remember when computers needed punched cards to make them work, the fact is that the public and private sector’s investment in data gathering and analysis is a pale shadow of what it was 30 years ago. When I edited The UK Food and Drink Industry book in 1995 with Professor Wyn Morgan we, and our colleagues in agribusiness and academia saw how, even then, data sources on key parts of the food chain were being eroded.

Being an optimist and having the benefit of hindsight, it is good to see that ideas are now being presented to decision-makers at the highest level that give all of us the chance to show commitment to improving food security. Let’s hope that my optimism is not misplaced so that the pig can, at last, have a more balanced view of the different parts of that breakfast meal.

Download the report here: g20_interagency_report_food_price_volatility

John Strak is Special Professor of Food Economics in the School of Economics at The University of Nottingham, Editor of Whole Hog Brief, Managing Director of FoodEast Ltd, and (previously) Managing Director of North Highland Products.

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