Overreaching ambition of G20 efforts

by Morton Sosland
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With all that has come to bear recently on wheat and financial markets, grand proposals on the international stage have received scant attention. This is so even though the many ideas put forward at a gathering of G20 agricultural ministers in Paris at the start of this summer could, if they worked, be hugely important to this industry. Yes, these striking initiatives have received slight attention. Yet, careful examination seems merited not just for awareness but for response. There’s no question but that the G20 agricultural agenda deserves more than cursory attention.

Named “Action Plan on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture,” the G20 proposal contains a large number and wide range of ideas meant mainly to lessen the impact of sharply advancing food prices. Some clue to explaining the plan’s complexity as well as its amazing ambition is provided by the dominant role of France, as the host country to the G20 meeting. It is Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, who has been most vociferous among world leaders in decrying the rise of wheat and other agricultural prices, blaming these moves largely on market maneuvering. As far-fetched as Mr. Sarkozy’s solutions may be, the “action plan” he led in creating has elements that deserve attention from grain-based foods as well as by all committed to assuring an adequate world food supply.

A look at just two of the plan’s principal action proposals reveals its amazing aspirations. Focusing on wheat as “this major crop for food security,” the G20 ministers moved to launch a totally new International Research Initiative for Wheat Improvement. Officially called IRIWI, this new organization is given the sweeping charge to expand production, while enhancing nutritional value and assuring safety. As if that’s not ambitious enough, even when blended with other worldwide research undertakings, the G20 paper directs the research on wheat to take “into account societal demands for sustainable and resilient agricultural production systems.” The paper urges collaboration among different organizations that have had experience with wheat and suggests funding through the public and private sectors, as well as a “high level” meeting on wheat this month in Paris.

A principal target of the new wheat initiative is to “pave the way to similar initiatives for other crops constituting the predominant basis of human nutrition.” Besides the implications of such a charge, the plan incorporates one of Mr. Sarkozy’s chief solutions to the volatility of global agricultural prices — correcting what he points to as the absence of “accurate, timely and comparable information on market fundamentals.” Without speaking solely on behalf of this journal’s publishing company that has been devoted to providing such information for nearly 90 years, it would not be out of place to assert that grain and agricultural markets are served by a plethora of information providers. Yes, there are differences in quality, but it is doubtful whether the new Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) will end all variations and indeed might simply accentuate this problem. That is particularly the case with the new system assigned the responsibility for forecasting prices for wheat, maize, rice and soybeans.

Except for the mirth created by wondering about the deliberations of the AMIS Global Food Market Information Team, made up of experts “designated by the competent bodies of all participating countries,” this aspect of the G20’s recommendations symbolizes the overreach of this undertaking. A multitude of forces are driving crop prices, including relatively new influences like shifts in consumer spending, riots on the streets of London and political uprisings, that quite literally defy the sort of analysis assigned to this new organization. Action timetables have been set, many meant to come into force within the next year, that will quickly measure what this collaboration accomplishes. Considering the proposed range from improving the nutritional quality and sustainability of wheat to forecasting crop prices, it is hard to imagine the likelihood of effective collaboration among many nations.

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