As the world faces an unprecedented nexus of crises – the COVID 19 pandemic, severe global economic meltdown, and now a looming food security crisis – the G20 agricultural ministers met virtually last April 21, together with host Saudi Arabia and representatives from the World Trade Organization.
In line with the G20 leaders’ statement on the COVID 19 crisis, the joint statement said the WTO and the G20 agricultural ministers commit to “ensure the continued flow of food, products and imports essential for agricultural and food production across borders” as a measure to “safeguard global food security and nutrition.”
Similarly, the World Bank, together with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Programme (WFP) issued a joint appeal for “collective action to ensure that markets are well-functioning.”
The WTO plus G20 agricultural ministers held the meeting after food exporting countries started putting up restrictions to ensure domestic food supply as droughts and increased local demand had threatened supply chains amid the coronavirus pandemic. Already, prices for rice hit a seven-year high and the price of wheat climbed as richer net food importing countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt went on a buying spree of stockpile and futures. This is despite the record numbers of global grain output.
With this, the WTO and G20 warned that any measures taken by governments to curb the coronavirus spread should “be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary” and?”do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global food supply chains.”
The ‘logistics narrative’
While there are clear immediate risks in food export restrictions in today’s fragile globalized food system, the current food crisis in developing countries are far from a ‘logistics’ issue. In fact, the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) had earlier commented that there is no risk of a global food crisis as only one percent of the global food supply is affected by these trade restrictions.
This WTO-led opportunist narrative – that the current food crisis is principally a ‘logistics’ problem — serves to gloss over the fact that its decades of neoliberal trade regime has created this fragile, unequal, unjust, unsustainable and shock-prone food system. Through the Agreement on Agriculture, it imposed upon countries from the Global South to abandon the support for local food production and dismantle strategic domestic food reserves, which has demolished domestic food supplies. This narrative is a clear evasion of accountability and only assists in justifying further liberalization of trade food and agriculture.
All across the Global South, food prices have increased or soared despite record-low price of oil, a huge component of agricultural prices. Huge wastage of food is seen in Asia and Latin America as producers deem that leaving their crops to rot is more economically viable than hiring pickers and transport amid plunging farmgate prices.
We’re NOT all in this together
The novel coronavirus, as experts say, does not infect based on race, class, nationality, or social standing, but it is undeniable that its impacts do.
There are clear winners in this ‘logistics narrative’ of the WTO and now the G20 – agricultural trade monopolies. International financial institutions including the IMF-WB and trade behemoths continue to bankroll the long supply chains of food and agricultural products, financialization of agricultural assets, and monopolies in food and agriculture trade despite strong evidence of their devastating impacts to the environment, food security, and livelihood of rural peoples. Already, China’s agritrade company COFCO – the newest in the ABCD monopoly (ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus, and new Glencore Agriculture) – has predicted “28% improvement in sales compared to the last 12 months.” US-based Bunge is repositioning itself in Asian markets as it recently struck a deal with Japanese firm Zen-Noh Grain Corp.
A globalized food system hinged on the profits of a handful of transnational corporations at the expense of developing nations’ capacity to feed themselves is undeniably an unstable one – as shown in today’s food security crisis.
Deafening silence on sanctions
One of the most notable issues missing, if not deliberately omitted, in the Joint statement is the ongoing economic sanctions on Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and Zimbabwe to name a few. WFP’s recent report warned that those in acute hunger may double to 265 million by the end of the year because of the measures that governments take to contain the pandemic. A huge portion of these numbers hail from countries with sanctions imposed and are victims of military aggression by some G20 countries, most notably Yemen and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Hilal Elver has already called for the immediate lifting of international sanctions to prevent hunger crises. But clearly, if the Joint statement is any indication, it fell on deaf ears. Countless trade and peace activists have called on intergovernmental bodies to lift the sanctions and halt military aggression, especially in West Asia and North Africa. In Yemen alone, ports and farmlands bombed by the US-Saudi Arabia alliance have yet to recover. WFP warns that without swift action, the country will plunge in a humanitarian crisis in ‘biblical proportions.’
Food security and inequality
While richer food importing countries are scrambling to secure food contracts and deals, poor and maldeveloped countries dependent on food imports are at the losing end. Food prices in Africa and parts of Asia are rising as increased demand and trade speculation push them up. In Europe’s bread basket Ukraine, IMF blackmailed the parliament to open up its “agricultural land market” to foreigners.
Even before the pandemic, around two billion people do not have regular access to safe and nutritious food and most of them are from these net food importing countries. Moreover, around 820 million people go hungry at night – 90 percent of whom are in Asia and Africa. While countries like the Philippines have imposed food price freeze to protect vulnerable consumers, they simply do not have the food stock inventory to back it up.
More importantly, it is the rural food producers that will be hardest hit with food insecurity. IFPRI notes that poor communities will be the most affected by the crisis and its subsequent economic impacts. Agriculture employs up to 75 percent of the labor force in Africa and up to 45 percent in Asia. While big exporters and agricultural trade TNCs cry crocodile tears over supply chain slowdowns, farmers and agricultural workers bear the brunt of decades-long prioritization of for-export crops. In Africa alone, only eight percent of land bought and leased by foreign landgrabbers are dedicated for local food production.
In the end, it is the impoverished nations of the Global South – in the last analysis, the urban and rural poor – who will feel the full swing of the impending global food crisis.
Radical reforms needed
The G20 Joint statement is nothing more than a glorified ‘hail Mary’ to save its face amid growing criticism of the neoliberal policies it espouses. Its insistence that the current food crisis felt in urban poor areas in lockdown and in rural fields across Latin America, Africa, and Asia as nothing more than a trade problem shows its aversion to meaningful pro-people reforms in food and agriculture.
Moreover, the ‘logistics narrative’ glosses over the fact that this instability and fragility of the global food system stems from decades long imperialist plunder, landgrabbing, deforestation, and neoliberal policies of privatization, deregulation, and liberalization.
The right to food and nation’s capacity to produce domestic food should not be decided by market forces.
Numerous organizations of farmers, small food producers, fisherfolk, agricultural workers, rural women and youth, indigenous peoples, and marginalized rural peoples have put forth immediate and medium term demands to address the current food crisis. History has shown, most recently in 2008-2009 when food protests in more than 44 countries shook the world, that the right to food is not negotiated in closed doors of the G20 but in streets and fields where the people have power.
Already, rural people are being thrown back into fields to feed the world without any semblance of protection or social insurance. If international leaders are serious in battling the coronavirus and implementing the right to food, radical reforms are needed. ###
Written by JC Mercado, PCFS Global Secretariat staff