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78th Annual Summer Conference, August 6–9, 2009

Distribution and Distortion: How Can We Get Enough Food to Everyone Who Needs It?

Speakers: JENNIFER CLAPP, Centre for International Governance Innovation, Waterloo; ERIC REGULY, Columnist, Globe and Mail Report on Business; GLEN HODGSON, Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist, Conference Board of Canada; and Dr. ALEX McCALLA, Professor Emeritus, Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC Davis (bios)

Summary by Nathan Weatherdon, CIPA Youth Scholarship Recipient

The Friday evening session on food distribution and distortions in food markets looked at the economic and institutional environments that affect the supply and demand for food without missing out on the question of equity. We saw that real food prices have historically been declining due to the increased amount of land under cultivation and substantial improvements in agricultural productivity. However, relatively low agricultural productivity growth, an increasing number of mouths to feed as well as greater demand for meat in developing countries and diversion of agricultural products for energy alternatives were pinpointed as factors behind the apparent end of abundance and declining real food prices.

Some salient themes that came up in the presentations and during the discussion period included trade and regulation in food markets, the vulnerability of the poor in terms of access to food, the recent expansion of “offshore farms” and the burning question of the viability of biofuels.

Economic inequality was identified as being one of the main barriers between the poor and a full dinner plate. Improved income security was proposed as a solution to this issue for some countries. Unfortunately, a looming shortage in the World Food Program’s 2009 budget was cited as a cause for immediate concern in terms of our ability to distribute food in the most extreme situations in the poorest countries.

On the trade and regulation front, the variously protected and subsidized nature of global food markets came under scrutiny. Some of the panelists took the position that reducing subsidies would improve market access to agricultural markets for developing countries and that it would increase agricultural production in developing countries. An alternative suggestion to level the playing field in international food markets was that developing countries could adopt the protectionist practices of wealthier countries. This naturally ties into the question of biofuels due to special concerns about subsidies for the industry and the effects that this has on broader food supply and prices.

At a more national level, Canadian supply management programs were confronted by some of the panelists for the effects that they have on prices, Canada’s position in international trade negotiations and perhaps on innovation, but were supported by a number of delegates.

The relatively recent question of offshore farms was put on the table as a major issue facing developing countries because this food will not necessarily be available for local markets and do not seem to have been negotiated in the interests of the general citizenry of the countries who will be hosting these farms.

All of the panelists appeared to express sensitivity to the political challenges of addressing these issues. Bringing ministries together at the national level and improving the dialogue between national ministries and international organizations may have to be accomplished before overcoming the political barriers to ensuring food supply for vulnerable populations and addressing trade distortions that are presently built into global food trade.