The G20 gets interesting on biofuels and food security

This year’s French-chaired G20 has food security as one of its key priorities. Agriculture ministers will be meeting for a summit in mid-June, and their sous-sherpas have been meeting in Paris this week to figure out an action plan to take to the summit.

The key input to that meeting was a joint paper on food price volatility produced by, essentially, all of the international organisations that matter on this issue: the IMF and World Bank; the three Rome-based UN food agencies, plus the UN High Level Food Task Force; the WTO and UNCTAD; and the OECD and International Food Policy Research Institute for good measure.

Now, you might well suppose that such an alphabet soup of agencies would struggle even to agree on the order in which their names should be listed on the cover of the report, never mind hammer out a common analysis. And as for recommendations that go beyond harmless motherhood and apple pie, forget it. Right?

Not at all. The report – which was leaked (pdf, with thanks to ICTSD) earlier this week – is extremely clear and well-written, and sets out one of the most succinct summaries I’ve seen of the main dynamics on the issue. But what’s really surprising is how far the ten agencies have collectively put their heads above the parapet on the most sensitive issues in food security – not just analytically, but in some clear and right-on target recommendations.

Among them: that G20 countries should commit to greater transparency about their stock levels (a very sensitive issue for China, India and other emerging economies); the creation of a new Rapid Response Forum to co-ordinate during crises (a conspicuous gap in the global system’s arsenal during the 2008 food spike); more transparency in derivative and futures markets; some notably tough language on export restrictions, including moves to define exactly what constitutes a “critical food shortage” that makes it OK for a country to impose an export ban; and support for the creation of a system of regional food reserves being developed by the World Food Programme.

All good proposals, and some pretty surprising to see in a document like this. But here’s the really stand out recommendation:

G20 governments [should] remove provisions of current national policies that subsidize (or mandate) biofuels production or consumption.

That’s it. No qualifiers or caveats – and this from ten international agencies, including the Bank, Fund, WTO, OECD and every relevant part of the UN. The report goes on,

Failing a removal of support, G20 governments should develop contingency plans to adjust (at least temporarily) policies that stimulate biofuel production or consumption (in particular mandatory obligations) when global markets are under pressure and food supplies are endangered.

After which the report sets out detailed proposals for how this might be achieved. The interesting thing in all this, of course, is that it really puts the EU and (above all) the US, with their loopy biofuel support policies, on the spot. Well done, the international system. Now let’s see what the sherpas made of it.