In 1986, farmers from around the world gathered in Geneva to discuss a deepening farm crisis that was forcing many of them off the land and devastating rural communities. The meeting showed that despite their differences many of the obstacles facing farmers in the U.S. were the same as those facing farmers in Europe, Asia and Africa. At the conclusion of the Geneva meeting, a small group of rural and farm leaders set up an organisation called the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), based in Minnesota in the USA.
In the 1990s, IATP expanded beyond its initial focus on international policymaking institutions like the WTO to work on other issues like on-farm pollution and the development of sustainable farming practices. It opened offices both in the U.S. and Europe (in Berlin), becoming a well-known international organisation.
The IATP supports the establishment of food reserves. A decade ago it produced a report entitled ‘Why we need food reserves’ https://www.iatp.org/documents/why-we-need-food-reserves. The report was written shortly after world food prices had risen very sharply in 2007-8, but the worldwide enthusiasm for reserves became less pronounced as prices began to settle over the next decade. Three years later (in 2013) the IATP produced another report claiming that the main drivers of price volatility still had not been addressed https://www.iatp.org/blog/201302/food-crisis-update-main-drivers-price-volatility-still-not-addressed. The report noted that ‘world stocks-to-use levels remain dangerously low for major grains.’ It added that ‘several G-20 countries remain hostile to public stockholding and have resisted international discussion of how to coordinate grain reserves.’ Though it observed that ‘many developing countries are rebuilding domestic food stocks’, their efforts often encountered hostility from international development organisations.
At the end of 2017 the IATP produced a report entitled ‘Food Reserves, Climate Adaptation and the World Trade Organization’ https://www.iatp.org/documents/food-reserves-climate-adaptation-and-world-trade-organization
Based on global climate talks in Bonn which discussed the best strategies for protecting food security, the report had a very interesting discussion of the need to clarify and to some extent change WTO rules on public stockholding. It also made the clearest possible case for food reserves, particularly for developing countries. Admitting that in the past ‘many such national reserves in sub-Saharan Africa were troubled by inadequate financing and mismanagement’, it added that ‘even those that worked relatively well were dismantled over the 1990s, not least because they did not fit with the model of economic liberalization that dominated donor thinking at the time. But there are compelling reasons to consider their re-establishment given the importance of food security, the destabilizing effect of climate change on agricultural production, and the failure of purely market-based approaches to protect an adequate and appropriate food supply and distribution.’
These points are as important today as they were a decade ago in the aftermath of the food crisis in 2007-8. This is particularly the case in that there are some signs of a new crisis developing, as global grain prices hit their highest level since 2011. As organisations like the IATP recognise, it should not take a crisis to force governments to put in place sensible precautions against price volatility.