G-20 takes aim at food prices

Low grain stocks called a danger

By Matthew Saltmarsh and Steven Erlanger
New York Times / June 24, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

PARIS — Agriculture ministers from the Group of 20 leading economies agreed yesterday on measures intended to lift global production and improve supplies of basic foods, while mitigating price swings.

The agreements were hailed by ministers as important steps, although some advocates said they did not go far enough, especially in tackling biofuel subsidies.

The initiatives included creating a database on food stocks to be managed by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome; a joint international research program on wheat; strengthening support for research into rice production; and a “rapid response forum’’ among Group of 20 members to assess and respond to food crises.

While investment in production was encouraged, the ministers did not offer specifics.

The ministers also agreed, in hard bargaining late Wednesday night, to remove export restrictions on food for humanitarian purposes and reaffirmed their opposition to export bans — an issue that will be taken up by the World Trade Organization. They asked the World Food Program to develop a pilot program for regional humanitarian food reserves.

“Concrete, very precise and ambitious measures will be taken,’’ the chairman of the meeting, the French agricultural minister, Bruno Le Maire, told reporters. “Better transparency in agricultural markets will translate into less price volatility.’’

The president of the World Bank, Robert B. Zoellick, called the steps made here modest, saying, “It’s just a start, but it’s progress.’’

Food stocks of wheat and corn are too low, he suggested, given the increasing demand for feed stocks from China, India and the developing world, where people are eating more meat. Keeping up with that demand will not allow a growth in emergency food stocks unless more action is taken, he said. And if there is an unforeseen event or disastrous weather, these stocks might quickly disappear and prices would soar.

“We’re in a danger zone for a number of years,’’ he said. “If you get a bad weather event, you get hammered.’’

The 24-page declaration was the result of months of negotiations. China and India, in particular, had been reluctant to release data on stocks, which are seen as strategic. Final agreement was obtained only at a dinner Wednesday night, attended by, among others, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Pascal Lamy, the chief of the World Trade Organization.

In general, Zoellick said, the Group of 20 allowed countries like China and India to take more collective responsibility for world crises and challenges.

This first-of-a-kind meeting was called by France, the current holder of the Group of 20 and Group of 8 presidencies, after world food prices hit record levels earlier this year, raising concerns about a replay of the riots in some countries in 2007 and 2008.