Everyone who needs to have some idea of the likely future of the global grain-based food industry ought to have a keen interest in steps that may be taken by the as yet unnamed collaboration on food issues just launched by the member nations of BRIC. This is the acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China, the four fastest emerging economies, whose agriculture ministers met this spring in Russia and negotiated a declaration committing them to work to solve problems of food security, poverty-related hunger, the effect of climate change on agricultural production and developing an information system to help guide decisions on production and marketing. This was the first formal meeting of these four agricultural ministers and the boldness of what they agreed to or hinted that they wanted to achieve make this quadripartite cooperation much more than complex words.
Nothing symbolizes their ambition better than the observations of an Indian commentator who concluded that the BRIC nations have two trump cards to play when it comes to food and agriculture. One would be halting use of the dollar as the unit of exchange in food dealings. Besides this desire to move from the dollar and the implied lessening of American influence, the second trump card is even more ominous, involving coordinated control over the world food supply. This was seen as possible in light of the dimensions the four countries represent — 42% of world population, growing 40% of the world wheat crop and turning out half of the pork and a third of the poultry and beef. The four countries have a third of the land surface devoted to agricultural production.
It is easy to sense from these ambitious goals that Russia played a key role in not just drafting the declaration, but also in spelling out these detailed targets. It is Russia that openly is seeking to centralize its grain exporting to make the Black Sea nations the world’s leading grain shippers. It is Russia that has said it plans to bring nearly 50 million acres of derelict farmland back into production in order to achieve primary rank as a wheat producer, lifting its crop ahead of the United States.
Achieving these goals requires quadrilateral cooperation on a scale hardly ever witnessed in either domestic agricultural production or in export trade. While recognizing the many differences in agricultural research programs, the BRIC nations pledged to take steps “to establish stable, long-term, efficient and effective cooperation and exchange mechanisms on agricultural research.” That research will deal with the impact of climate changes on food security. They acknowledged that millions of the world’s hungriest people are in their own countries, assigning great importance to means of assuring sufficient food for vulnerable populations.
Fundamental to the success of such endeavors is having information systems, including supply-demand data, population shifts and analysis aimed at a “coordinated approach on formation of national grain reserves.” To build this agricultural information base system, BRIC is creating a standing expert working group that will meet on a regular basis. This group is being asked to prepare specific proposals to advance overall targets, while also keeping the agricultural ministers informed.
As expected from these countries, the declaration stresses the responsibility of governments for food security. Yet, the declaration also reveals a welcome and perhaps surprising recognition of the role of markets. “Ensuring food security,” it says, “requires a well-functioning world market and trade system for food and agriculture based on the principles of fairness and non-discrimination.” Even though this statement is tied to completing the Doha Round of world trade talks along lines these nations want, the declaration’s emphasis on the market’s role reflects an approach worthy of embrace by America’s food industry. Not all the policies that come from BRIC are in line with the rest of the world. It is a shift worth hailing, pointing to potential benefits in cooperation between nations when aimed at worthy goals.