The CFS comes of age

The CFS comes of age

Photo credit: ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti.

I came away from the 39th session of UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) last Saturday tired but hopeful. In a world where many are skeptical of global institutions' ability to solve the world’s most challenging problems—not least of which, climate change—the CFS offers a new approach to global governance, and is getting results. It’s a rare place in the multilateral system where transparency and participation have stretched to allowing civil society a place at the negotiating table. The processes are not perfect, and as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter’s summary reminds us, there is still a need for a “strong, innovative monitoring and accountability mechanism” to give the organization teeth. Nonetheless, it’s getting things done, and keeping a surprising diversity of people happy while doing it.

The CFS forum is maturing—settling into a rhythm and losing some of the slightly frantic energy that betrays the insecurity of an untested institution. (Don’t be fooled by the term “39th session”—the whole committee was dramatically revamped in 2009, so this is only the 3rd year the reformed committee has met). The governments seem more relaxed, and more focused. The civil society organizations are taking their space with confidence, focused on content, analysis and strategy because the processes they have built to ensure collaborative interaction among a diverse mix of constituencies and regions are working reasonably well. The processes are still evolving, of course, but they are working, too, which is great, because food security issues continue to merit urgent attention from the international community.

Having narrowly avoided a crisis in 2012 despite the U.S. drought, international food prices remain volatile and inclined to spike. Governments remain nervous about their country-level food security, mistrustful of international trade and heavily invested in expanding production. The need for space in the international system where governments can meet and discuss these issues without negotiating a trade agreement or signing a contract for the receipt of development dollars is as great as ever. CSOs hoped the CFS would be that space and the outcomes of 2012 give them grounds for optimism.

For example, this past week the CFS endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure, a hard-fought document agreed in March 2012, that sets out principles for governments to consider in managing the tenure of land, fisheries and forests from a food security perspective. Governments at this year’s CFS successfully navigated negotiations on climate change. They also made decisions on social protection, which are programs and policies designed to both assist people living below the poverty line and to prevent people from ending up below that line. The CFS discussed its mandate, too, in a document called the Global Strategic Framework (GSF). A version of the GSF has now been adopted, which, while imperfect, is workable, and can be built on. (Note the GSF website still needs to be updated). The CSOs were pleased to get the CFS mandate codified and adopted, even if not all the issues CSOs have identified as important were included. The U.S. in particular refused to allow the GSF to include a call for discussion of definitions of food sovereignty, but it was important that the negotiation on this point was held at all—it would have been unimaginable even five years ago, and the countries that disagreed with the United States were vocal.

I chaired a side event on price volatility at the CFS. Price volatility was a big issue on last year’s agenda. It remains a politically hot issue, as was evident in Agricultural Ministers’ speeches during the CFS, at the summit FAO hosted on World Food Day (October 16). IATP organized the side event with Oxfam, ActionAid International, and the Trans-Atlantic Dialogue on Food Assistance (TAFAD). The speakers were George André Simon, Professor of Food Security at the University of Rome; Halima Sanda from the organization of pastoralist farmers in Mali called Bilital Marobé; Djibo Bagnan, the President of ROPPA, a network of West African peasant organizations; and Aftab Alam, International Coordinator for Livelihoods and Food Security at Action Aid International. They addressed questions of price volatility in the past year, as they relate to conditions for farmers in developing countries; price volatility in domestic markets; and the agreement in April of a new international agreement on food assistance. Abdolreza Abbassian, in charge of the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) for FAO, was present and gave his view on what AMIS could add to curb excessive price volatility, and the limitations of AMIS in relation to the enormous challenges of food security as well.

One of the messages from the event was the need to stop talking about the food crisis, though the possibility of a dramatic food price crisis still looms. Rather, we should be talking about the new international context for food—some people like the term paradigm shift—which is characterized by a shift from excessive stocks to very low stock levels, new demand pressures for land and water (from biofuels in particular), poorly regulated commodity and futures exchanges, and less certain production resulting from climate change and the increased incidence of climate-related supply shocks, particularly due to drought and floods. It’s taking time to develop the best institutional, policy and regulatory frameworks to handle this new, less certain world for food systems, but the CFS remains one of the institutions that has to play a central role, despite the G-20’s reluctance to cede any political space.

There’s plenty more to digest from what has become the place to be and to learn for anyone working on food security policy. I predict the CFS is only just hitting its stride and that we can expect more in the future. Next year, for example, they will tackle biofuels. It was a great week, and there is more to come.