In just over two months, the world food situation has gone from bad to worse. Calls not to panic fell on deaf ears, even as the Ukrainian military put up stiff opposition to the Russian onslaught. If Ukraine somehow wins the war, it will be decades before its economy and agricultural exports return to their previous levels.
Many countries have panicked in the face of global shortages. China banned the export of agricultural chemicals, Indonesia banned the export of palm oil and India banned the export of wheat.
The United States has expanded its commitment to maize-based ethanol, raising the mandated amount in gasoline supplies in order to lower the cost of driving. That maize could have been diverted to human consumption, to help substitute for wheat shortages.
Malaysia seems ready to lift its mandate to blend palm oil into diesel fuel supplies. That palm oil supply can now re-enter the global food supply chain. Although many long-term, structural and policy problems have contributed to this crisis, the urgent need at the moment is to focus on improving the short-term situation.
Just as with the rice crisis in 2008, some outside intervention will be necessary to break the cycle of panic and “beggar thy neighbor” trade policies. In 2008, it was the Japanese prime minister’s agreement to re-export the country’s long grain rice to the Philippines, the most panicked rice importing country during the crisis.
The current crisis is more diffuse — it involves fuels, fertilizers and foods, especially wheat and vegetable oils. At the same time, the crisis is now more acute. All of these commodities are experiencing low inventories, curtailed production, and disrupted supply chains.
It will not be easy to stop this crisis, much less return to more normal trade patterns. Coordination among the world’s leading economies will be needed to make progress. Fortunately, an opportunity for such coordination is on the horizon, the forthcoming G20 summit meeting in Bali in November 2022.
With Indonesia in the chair, there is an opportunity for that country and for ASEAN, as a major regional trade organization, to get a formal commitment from G20 members to focus on food security and roll back trade restrictions.
Russia’s possible participation in the G20 will complicate this agenda, but there is room for active diplomacy, ideally led by Indonesia, to circumvent the problem. If that is possible, the elements of a “G20 Bali Commitment on Trade Normalization” are fairly straightforward.
It will require a firm pledge to avoid any further export restrictions on critical commodities, especially wheat, vegetable oils and fertilizers. Leaders will also have to agree to reduce, and eventually eliminate, export restrictions on these critical commodities.
Individual countries can be given considerable leeway to time their actions in accordance with their local political circumstances. To ensure commitment, it is important to establish a small secretariat, with Indonesia in the chair, to monitor and publish the details of implementing the commitments.
Transparency is the best enforcement mechanism. Sadly, neither the United Nations nor the World Trade Organization can play a credible role here. But other organizations, such as the Agricultural Market Information System and the International Food Policy Research Institute, could help fill the gap.
Several good faith actions can be taken by the United States and European Union to set the stage for broader agreement at the G20 meeting itself. The European Union has already made a good start by mobilizing to coordinate wheat exports to countries most in need.
The United States should follow suit by reversing its boost to ethanol production and announcing guidance on how maize supplies can be redirected to human consumption. Efforts to conserve wheat consumption in favor of other carbohydrates, especially maize and potatoes, should be promoted.
It seems unlikely that China will be an enthusiastic participant either in early “good faith” efforts or in joining the G20 commitment itself. Again, diplomatic efforts need to be brought to bear to avoid forcing China into a box and to encourage its engagement with this proposed Indonesian and ASEAN-led initiative.
Although the United States and Australia are unlikely to be able to play constructive roles in this diplomacy, the European Union could be quite influential.
Now is not the time for timid actions. Millions of lives are at stake if the global food supply chain continues to malfunction and if policymakers respond by restricting food exports in the face of severe shortages.
It is understandable that individual countries are safeguarding their local populations with food produced on their own soil, but this exacerbates the rise in international food prices.
Future prosperity depends crucially on reliable international trade and all countries need to accept their role in supporting it. A further retreat into autarky would be disastrous for world food security.
Peter Timmer is Thomas D Cabot emeritus professor of development studies at Harvard University. This article was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. It is republished with kind permission.