The G20 Summit and Global Nutrition: What the International Community Brings to the Table

| November 21, 2011 | 0 Comments

Heads of state stand with one another at the November 2011 G20 Summit in Cannes, France. Photo courtesy of

At the sixth annual G20 Summit this November in Cannes, France, heads of state gathered to discuss the global financial system and the Greek bailout crisis. In the final declaration published at the conclusion of the meeting, G20 members also promised to improve transparency and stability of global food commodities markets through the newly created Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) and the Global Agricultural Geo-monitoring Initiative.[1] AMIS is meant to facilitate data sharing among buyers and producers of food whereas the Geo-monitoring Initiative is meant to coordinate global weather data to make better predictions on food prices.

Not represented at the G20 summit were the nations which stand most to loose in increasingly volatile food markets: low-income nations. High food prices often lead families to sacrifice costly items like school for children,  high-nutrition food, or medical care. On a global scale, malnutrition is thought to account for 16% of the global burden of disease.[2] The problem is most pronounced among youth; physical and mental development is largely a function of good nutrition during childhood. Putting food on the table may be one of the single most effective investments in future global health.[3]

Some advocacy groups, such as the World Development Movement (WDM), believe more must be done to ensure that food prices remain stable.[4] The WDM points to a report by the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTD) published in June of this year, which chronicles the impact of “financialization” on food prices in 2007 and 2008.[5] The report claims that in those years food prices were largely driven by speculative trading on food-based derivatives, the very types of trading which precipitated the global financial crisis in 2008. According to the report, volatility in the global financial market spilled into food markets and the added cost was passed on to consumers. The connection to global health is strong: between 2007 and 2008 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates up to 115 million people were driven into chronic hunger by rising food prices.[6]

The UNCTD report was prepared, in part, in response to a 2010 paper written by Scott Irwin and Dwight Sanders for the OECD that found no correlation between food price volatility and increased trading of food commodities.[7] Historically, these markets have allowed farmers to sell crops at guaranteed prices through “futures contracts”, mitigating some of the uncertainty in costs that come with farming. Food markets have stabilized the cost of basic staples like maize and wheat over long timescales. But since the liberalization of US trade law in 2000, the food based derivative market exploded, as did the price of food. Between 2007 and 2008 the price of wheat climbed by 80%, an unprecedented jump for a basic staple.[5] This increase was felt around the world, but especially in low-income nations where families may spend up to 60% of household incomes on food alone.[8]

In the next twenty years however, financial speculation may be the smallest aspect of understanding food security. A report by Oxfam suggests that food prices will more than double in the next two decades, largely due to costs associated with climate change.[9]  Increasing demand for biofuels will also have an impact on global food prices as will the increased demand of food from a growing population. But most distressing is evidence that plants in high carbon dioxide environments produce nutritionally deficient seeds – the consumable part of most plants.[10] This may have dire consequences for producers in the future, especially for subsistence farmers with limited access to enriched food sources.

The G20 is in a unique position to develop, coordinate, and enforce regulation of global markets. While technological advances will undoubtedly help feed more people, governments must ensure that access to food is not restricted by arbitrary changes in price. It may be useful to treat food as a commodity to set prices, but, as the most recent Somali famine tragically demonstrated, there is a moral aspect to food distribution that transcends the rules of the marketplace.


  1. G20. Cannes Declaration 2011.
  2. Mason JB, Musgrove P, Habicht J-P. 2003. At least one-third of poor countries’ disease burden is due to malnutrition. Dis. Control Priorities Proj. (DCPP) Work. Pap. No. 1, Bethesda, MD.
  3. A. Robertson. 2004. Food and health in Europe: a new basis for action. WHO regional publications.
  4. WDM. 2011.
  5. UNCTAD. Price formation in financialized commodity markets: the role of information UNCTAD, 2011.
  6. FAO. 2011 FAO, 2011.
  7. Irwin, Scott. Sanders, Dwight. 2010 The Impact of Index and Swap Funds on Commodity Futures Markets: Preliminary Results. OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Working Papers.
  8. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service. Data sets; international food consumption patterns. Updated Oct 6, 2003. StandardReports/Foodbudgetshares.xls
  9. Willenbockel, Dirk. 2011. Exploring Food Price Scenarios Towards 2030 With a Global Multi-Region Model
  10. Loladze, Irakli. 2002. Rising atmospheric CO2 and human nutrition: toward globally imbalanced plant stoichiometry? TRENDS in Ecology & Evolution. Vol 17. No. 10.

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