Photo Credit: Jamed Falik/IFPRI

The world will continue to face major challenges from political and economic uncertainty, conflict, and climate change in 2018 and beyond, and the rising trend of anti-globalization in some developed countries could hamper the ability of policymakers to respond to these challenges. The result could be slowed progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and food and nutrition security, especially in developing countries.

These are the major takeaway messages from the 2018 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR), the annual flagship report released this week by IFPRI. This year’s report focused on globalization and growing anti-globalization trends to examine how changes in the flow of goods, investments, information, and people are impacting global food systems and food security.

According to Shenggen Fan, Director General of IFPRI, policies encouraging more open trade, migration, and knowledge-sharing have played a crucial role in reducing global hunger and poverty in recent years. Global trade increased by 3.6 percent in 2017, compared to 1.3 percent growth in 2016, and the report projects global growth to reach 3.1 percent in 2018. This context of openness and growth has the potential to improve livelihoods, food security, and poverty rates around the world. Global food prices declined steadily throughout 2017 and are expected to remain low in 2018 – good news for poor consumers who spend a large portion of their incomes on food.

However, 2017 saw several developed countries begin to pull back from pro-globalization policies, as evidenced by the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change and the UK “Brexit” process. In addition, the Eleventh World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference concluded without a resolution to key global issues like agricultural subsidies and public food stocks. At the same time, inequality has continued to grow at the global, regional, and country levels. The population affected by global hunger rose from 777 million people in 2015 to 815 million people in 2016, marking the first such increase in nearly a decade. Foreign direct investments to developing economies fell by 14 percent in 2017, and conflict, drought, and extreme weather events combined to create severe food insecurity and humanitarian crises in several regions.

In this context of both progress and uncertainty, the authors of the 2018 GFPR emphasize the need for global cooperation. In the chapter on trade, researchers argue that trade, facilitated by more liberalized global agreements, can contribute to the four key aspects of food security: food availability, access, utilization, and stability of supply. More open trade has increased agricultural production, lowered the cost of food, and increased people’s access to more diverse, nutritious foods; in addition, by encouraging agricultural production in areas with a comparative advantage in agriculture, trade can increase incomes and stimulate overall economic growth.

Less open trade, on the other hand, can drive up food prices in countries with less comparative advantage in agriculture and can reduce food prices in countries with abundant agricultural production – this will lower real incomes in both types of countries. While the authors acknowledge the existence of potential risks from more open trade – including inequality and negative health and environmental impacts – they argue that these challenges can be better addressed through policies aimed at the source of the problem rather than at trade itself. For example, negative health impacts stemming from increased consumption of unhealthy, processed foods should be addressed through education campaigns and policies that directly target consumption.

The report also emphasized the need for open data and knowledge-sharing to improve food and nutrition security. In order for policymakers to enact transparent, effective, evidence-based policies, they need to understand the situation ‘on the ground’ – meaning the challenges and opportunities faced by farmers, processors, traders, consumers, and all other actors along the food value chain. This requires accessible, up-to-date data covering a broad range of indicators, from input and output prices to household consumption patterns to crop and weather conditions. Having all of this information when they need it can help policymakers avoid knee-jerk reactions, especially in times of crisis.

In addition, producers themselves also need access to open, reliable data in order to improve their production and marketing decisions. The authors emphasize that easily accessible information regarding local weather, crop varieties and breeding, soil management, irrigation, climate-smart agriculture, post-harvest management, and local and regional prices can help farmers react to shocks, enhance their productivity, and increase their incomes.

There have been several international efforts to increase open data sharing for agriculture and development, including Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) and the CGIAR’s Platform for Big Data in Agriculture. However, many developing countries still lack the infrastructure and capacity needed to collect, analyze, and manage large amounts of standardized, high-quality data. In addition, while 53 countries worldwide have established national open data platforms, such platforms in developing countries remain limited due to technological, political, and social barriers. Overcoming these barriers to increase the quality, accessibility, and transparency of data and information will require a willingness to collaborate on the part of both policymakers and private sector actors.

The report also called for the establishment of an International Panel on Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture. Such a forum would bring together the global research community to provide science-based assessments and guidance to inform evidence-driven policymaking. The report suggests modeling the Panel on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) but establishing it as an international rather than an intergovernmental entity in order to reduce transaction costs. By restricting the Panel to the global scientific community, rather than including a broader range of stakeholders such as NGOs and food industry representatives, the report suggests that science-based assessments could be separated from political lobbying or special interests. The Panel would be driven by transparent assessment processes and rigorous peer review procedures in order to legitimize its findings and would establish a global reach, including such institutions as the CGIAR, the CFS High Level Panel of Experts, and the InterAcademy Partnership.

The reality is that global food security efforts will continue to face a slew of immediate and long-term threats to growth, security, and stability. The report emphasizes that in order to enact policies that allow countries to leverage the benefits of globalization while minimizing the risks, countries and policymakers will need to cooperate; only through collaboration can the world achieve sustainable food and nutrition security.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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