Buffer stocks – the UN’s blind spot?

Last year saw the publication of the 5th UN Global Report on Food Crises. It was described in the preface by the UN Secretary-General as making ‘grim reading.’

The report talks about various new initiatives – the food systems summit which met in September 2021, the ongoing 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and other programmes. But what often makes reports like these ‘grim reading’ is that they offer very little in terms of concrete proposals to avoid food crises.

The food systems summit, for instance, talks as one might expect, about the need for a ‘systems’ rather than a ‘siloed’ approach. Other clichés abound, as many of us remember they did a generation ago when there was a lot of talk about ‘joined-up thinking’. But it is hard for the UN to move beyond clichés and onto specifics. All sorts of people seem to come together and announce, with due solemnity, the need for a joint approach (would they really come together to agree to work in isolation from one another?) and then off they go again until the next meeting.

We at ACTION have a very specific proposal to avoid food crises, which is well-known. Set up food reserves and use them to reduce the volatility of food prices on the national market. Governments can replenish the reserve when the price is low, thereby increasing market demand and bringing the price back up. This keeps the farmers in business. When the market price rises, governments can release stocks bask on to the market, adding to supply, thereby bringing the price down. This is good for consumers – food remains affordable. When food is affordable – by definition – there is no food crisis.

Since you’re buying cheap and selling dear, it is a system that you can use to cover your storage costs or perhaps even make a profit. Hence the claim to financial sustainability. Once a food reserve has been set up, it’s a system that has a chance of running itself.

Nothing like this is discussed in the UN’s Global Report. Wherever it refers to food stocks, it talks about household stocks, not national stocks. It’s thinking of what’s in the larder, not what’s in the silo. The only way to find a discussion of food reserves is to go to the country-specific reports, which make the point that national stocks have certainly been useful, though this is not even mentioned in the summaries offered in the UN Global Report.

Our previous blog discussed the Ghanaian buffer stock,  about which there is a paper in the ‘Journal of Happiness Studies’. Farmers who were part of a buffer stock were markedly happier than farmers who are not part of a buffer stock. And, of course, it is not just farmers who benefit from a buffer stock – it is consumers too. This UN report fails to recognise that we can get rid of food crises by setting up food reserves and using them as buffer stocks. For the authors of this Global Report on Food Crises, there is – somewhat ironically – not a buffer stock in sight.

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