The UN and food reserves

In July 2020 the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, presented a report to the UN General Assembly in line with a resolution on the Right to Food passed by the UN in 2018. The resolution was looking forward to achieving food security and sustainable agriculture by 2030. However, as with all goals and targets, the most important factor is a clear idea of how to reach the goal and achieve the target.

Professor Fakhri (University of Oregon) – UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food

In a section entitled ‘Trade and the political economy of dignity’, the rapporteur asks some very pertinent questions:

What is an ample supply and stock of food? (availability)

Who should control food reserves and stock? Where should this reserve and stock be held? (accessibility)

In a bountiful season, what are the rules for sharing food? (availability and access in the form of aid)

When does securing an abundant reserve of food become hoarding? (availability and access)

The first thing to do is to welcome the way in which the rapporteur embraces the idea of food reserves or food stocks in his report. We regard this as progress. The second is to note the questions he is asking, since they will determine how successful a system of food reserves will be. The definition of what is a sufficient amount in a food reserve is crucial. Too much, and the question of when an abundant reserve becomes hoarding arises. Too little, and there is a danger of not being able to release enough during times when supplies are low. Professor Fakhri rightly points out that the management of the stocks is fundamental. There must be no corruption in the form of ‘raiding the larder’ in order to benefit particular individuals or groups.

Related to that is the other question the rapporteur asks: ‘In a bountiful season, what are the rules for sharing food (availability and access in the form of aid)’? Our argument at first sight might appear harsh. It effectively says: ‘make use of market forces.’ We are saying that once the price of food rises to a certain level, supplies must be released onto the market in order to avoid the market price rising further. Our system does two things: it is intended to prevent the price of food falling so low that the farmer will be hurt by producing at a loss and going out of business and to prevent the price of food rising so high that consumers cannot afford to buy enough for their families.

We use food reserves in order to maintain prices within a band. That is the purpose of the stocks – not to have something available for food hand-outs or emergency food aid, but to keep prices from ever going too high or too low.

Ours is a sustainable system, replenishing stocks when prices are low in order to boost demand and releasing them when prices are high in order to boost supply. We can allow market forces to operate because our system effectively tames them, keeping prices within a band which ensures that neither producers nor consumers will get hurt. We do not have to think in terms of using stocks for emergency food aid. Rather, we need to think in terms of using stocks to avoid emergencies in the first place. That would be a situation in which ‘sustainability’ and ‘security’ could mean something real and concrete in the volatile world of food supply.