G20 Agriculture Ministers underscore importance of food system sustainability, open and fair trade, and digital innovations as long-term food crisis responses
Even as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic dissipate, the world continues to face a severe food security crisis, exacerbated by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, putting it further off track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2—ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030.
The G20 Agriculture Ministers met under this cloud on September 28 in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. Though the chair’s summary did reflect G20 members’ commitment to step up efforts to make agriculture and food systems sustainable and more resilient against future shocks, ministers were unable to reach a consensus on a joint communiqué on how to address the upheaval in global food markets caused by the war in Ukraine.
Nonetheless, the ministers discussed three priority areas for action: (1) promote investments in sustainable and climate-resilient technologies and practices; (2) adhere to principles of open, fair, predictable, transparent, and non-discriminatory agricultural trade to ensure availability and affordability of food for everyone; and (3) promote innovative agriculture entrepreneurship through digital innovations in agriculture and food systems, to improve farmers’ livelihoods, empower women and provide opportunities for youth.
CGIAR was present as an observer during these meetings, through a delegation led by Johan Swinnen, Managing Director of Systems Transformation CGIAR and IFPRI Director General, along with Rob Vos, Director, Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division at IFPRI/CGIAR, and Gianpiero Menza, Senior Manager Partnerships & Innovative Finance at the Alliance/CGIAR. Addressing the meeting, Swinnen emphasized that the present crisis has already started hurting food systems, thus requiring concerted action with short-, medium-, and long-term components.
Swinnen called for the international community to come together around four priority areas for action. First, more financial support is needed as immediate crisis response to facilitate more humanitarian assistance and help food-importing low-income countries stem domestic food price inflation. Second, G20 countries should make an urgent push to make up for decades long under-investment in R&D and under-utilization of ready-to-use innovations. Third, encouraging healthier diets and consumption of sustainably produced foods should be a priority, as sustainable diets can substantially reduce farmers’ and food systems’ ecological footprint. Finally, Swinnen called upon G20 members to rethink present agricultural support measures, which cost around $800 billion per year in fiscal resources but are not very effective in improving food system outcomes. Instead, as joint CGIAR/IFPRI and World Bank research has shown, those resources could be deployed much more effectively to finance necessary investments in food systems R&D and provide incentives to farmers and consumers, by motivating them to produce and consume in more sustainable, healthy and resilient ways.
Lessons learned through the pandemic and other shocks pushed the G20 agriculture ministers to concur on the importance of open, fair, and transparent international trade practices that are non-discriminatory and consistent with WTO guidelines, recognizing trade’s role in securing adequate food supplies as well as its potential for diversifying supplies and making food systems more resilient.
“While this is the promise of the current multilateral trading system, we are still far from fulfilling it,” Swinnen said. Now, he said, it is crucial to go beyond a simple call for keeping food and fertilizer trade channels open by undertaking various concrete measures. Undoing export restrictions, especially on food supplies for humanitarian aid, and encouraging public stock holdings to address food security needs during shocks should be resolved as part of WTO negotiations.
In addition to sustainable food systems and fair trade, the agriculture sector must embrace digital innovations by leveraging smart phone technology to improve livelihoods of small farmers and provide income and employment opportunities in the agrifood sector for women and youth.
Several of these lines for action are reflected in the chair’s summary of the agriculture ministers meeting, but phrased as broad intentions with little specificity . On October 11, though, G20 finance and agriculture ministers met jointly for the first time to define more specific responses to the current crisis. Some of the ministers committed to use “all appropriate policy tools to address current economic and financial challenges, including the risk of food insecurity.” The precise measures for joint action are still under consideration, but they would include more resources for humanitarian assistance, more finance and debt relief for low-income food importing to provide fiscal space for protection of vulnerable populations, keeping trade channels for food and fertilizers open, and more resources for long-term investments in sustainable agriculture and food systems.
The ministers indicated they wished to further assess the G20’s role in pushing these actions forward in light of other global initiatives, such as those of the UN Global Crisis Response Group (GCRG) and the G7 Global Alliance for Food Security (GAFS). The good news is that the urgent need for internationally concerted effort is widely recognized. However, with the current geopolitical tensions, achieving such collective action under the G20 is proving difficult.