Flooded Thai rice delivers wake-up call to G20

To refer to last week’s proceedings of The Committee on World Food Security as its 37th session is a little misleading. In fact it’s only the second annual gathering since the CFS terms of reference and representation were beefed-up by the 2009 World Food Summit.

I’ve attempted a quick check on this enhanced potency by reviewing whether the outcome of the session responds to the needs of a single country, Nepal. I’m afraid that the answer is a pretty resounding No.

In fairness, the CFS has not yet published its report. But we have a summary in yesterday’s UN Food and Agriculture Organization press release and Oxfam has issued some valuable insider observations. An advantage of the new set-up is that a number of key NGOs are equal participants.

Nepal has enjoyed a much better year in 2011, even to the extent of recording a food surplus in aggregate. But it remains high on the list of the world’s countries most vulnerable to an increasingly unpredictable climate.

The best defence against hunger in Nepal is protection from external shocks. This means a stable price of rice in world markets and it means reassurance that rice surplus countries will not introduce arbitrary export bans. Nepal was in real trouble for a while when its neighbour, India, took this step in 2008.

Internally, Nepal’s rural economy needs consistent leadership from the global community on improving land rights for women and introducing cash safety net payments for the poorest families. This would put pressure on the government to shape its new constitution accordingly.

On global price stability, the CFS had been served up the perfect cue. A policy report on price volatility commissioned by the G20 was published last May. Its strongest medicine was reserved for a call to withdraw all biofuel incentives and restrict export bans to measures of last resort.

According to the FAO summary, the CFS has diluted the dose to a sip of weak tea. It “noted that biofuels should be produced where they are socially, economically and environmentally feasible.” There’s no reference at all to export bans.

Talk about endorsing the status quo. Oxfam lays the blame squarely on the “G20 food exporters’ countries (who) showed that they are not yet ready to address the structural causes of the broken food system.” This refers primarily to US and Europe.

On internal matters, there was something positive for rural communities in Nepal to welcome. The Committee did request that governments provide safety net payments for vulnerable people. And it also called for women to be given equal access to land rights and fairer participation in agriculture programmes.

Now it’s over to President Sarkozy of France to bang the drum for food security in next week’s G20 summit in Cannes.

He would do well to read about the terrible floods in Thailand. Estimates suggest that damage to the rice crop could wipe out much of the country’s anticipated surplus. Thailand traditionally contributes a third of all world rice exports. Countries like Nepal will be keeping fingers crossed, to put it mildly.

It’s this sort of climate risk which invalidates the traditional approach to food production and casino trading. Business-as-usual is not an option for world food security.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK