Food security and boosting global agricultural output to stamp out hunger will top the agenda of the first-ever meeting of farm ministers from major industrialized and developing nations this weekend in Italy.
After sky-high food prices sparked riots and panic buying last year, the world has sought to boost farm output and stocks. Richer nations like South Korea and Saudi Arabia have also been buying land abroad to feed their people.
Prices have dropped since then but experts have warned global supplies remain a structural problem and prices could take off again once the world economy starts recovering.
Farm ministers from the G8 industrialized countries — to which Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, Australia and Egypt are also invited — will meet from today to Monday.
“We are ... taking responsibility for marking out a common route able to lead us out of the crisis and respond to the world food emergency,” Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia said.
The G8 farmers groups at their meeting last month proposed creating a global grain reserve to improve supply stability and avoid price shocks, but details have yet to be worked out.
France will push the idea of regional farm policies as a way of promoting agricultural development, a French farm ministry official said.
Farmers from poor and rich countries alike want to get more funds for agriculture, saying the sector has been neglected since the economic crisis broke out.
Billions of dollars were poured out to prop up ailing banks, while funds are drying up to help the world’s almost 1 billion hungry, advocates for the poor say.
“With 1.7 billion more mouths to feed by 2030 and the ratio of arable land to population declining by 40 to 55 percent, the food crisis is set to increase,” said Ajay Vashee, president of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers.
Putting hunger, food supply and poverty back on top of the international agenda would be a major achievement of the meeting, said Hafez Ghanem, assistant director-general at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The FAO and other campaigners against hunger will push for more funds and other assistance to help low-income countries boost productivity, improve water supplies and training as well as give better access to international markets.
But richer countries are keen to protect their markets. Russia, the largest importer of US chickens, aims to become self-sufficient in poultry and pork in two years.
Agreement is expected on boosting aid to poor nations, but on easing trade barriers ministers are likely to settle for a less specific call to move ahead with the Doha round of global trade talks, an official familiar with the matter said.
US President Barack Obama has pledged to ask Congress to double US aid for food safety in poor countries to US$1 billion next year. US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he will reiterate this commitment at the G8 meeting.
The ministers are likely to make most progress on the global partnership on farming and food security which was rolled out by French President Nicolas Sarkozy last June and backed by last year’s G8 summit in Japan, the official said.
Italy’s Zaia said survival of the country’s agriculture sector was at stake.
“Our direction is to defend our agriculture, our farmers, our agribusinesses, our local products,” Zaia told a news conference presenting the meeting, which will be held in a secluded castle in his native north Italian province of Treviso. “On the other hand, we are willing to listen to the entire world ... We should find common ground.”