G-20 Agriculture Ministers Agree to Improve Food, Water Sustainability

26 January 2017

Against a backdrop of growing international tension over trade, agriculture ministers from the G-20 coalition of major advanced and emerging economies agreed to improve the sustainability of water use in farming when they met in Berlin on Sunday 22 January.

“We commit to approaches that improve sustainability of water use in food and agricultural production while ensuring food security and nutrition in accordance with our multilateral trade commitments,” said an action plan released by ministers in conjunction with a political declaration.

The ministers also said they would continue implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted by the United Nations in New York in 2015, and would push ahead with implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

A statement from German Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt underscored that agriculture lays the foundation for peace and security. "That makes agriculture part of global security policy," said Schmidt, who hosted the event as part of Germany’s G-20 presidency.

The G-20 ministerial took place in the margins of the annual Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, which saw agriculture ministers and senior officials from 83 countries meet in Berlin and issue a separate declaration.

Sources told Bridges that as the conference came immediately following the inauguration of new US President Donald Trump, Washington was represented at the event by a senior civil servant rather than by Sonny Perdue, the recently nominated US Secretary of Agriculture. Perdue has not yet been confirmed by the Senate.

What role for trade?

The ministers agreed that agricultural trade and investment could contribute towards sustainable development and food security.

“We recognise that strengthening agricultural trade and promoting responsible agricultural investment are important for progress towards sustainable agricultural development, food security and nutrition, and inclusive economic growth,” the declaration said.

However, sources told Bridges that disagreement over agriculture talks at the WTO meant that the G-20 was reluctant to go into any depth on trade.

In their final communique, G-20 ministers committed to working “constructively with all WTO members with the objective of achieving progress in agricultural negotiations” by the global trade body’s next ministerial conference. This gathering is scheduled to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2017.

At the WTO, agricultural exporting nations have been joined by members of the African and Least Developed Country groups in calling for the ministerial to agree to discipline policies that distort markets for food and agriculture, such as subsidies for farming and fisheries.

However, the US and China remain at loggerheads over how best to address farm subsidies, with each arguing that the other needs to commit to taking more meaningful action.

Combating resistance to antibiotics

G-20 ministers also agreed to take steps to tackle the growth of antimicrobial resistance, for example by analysing the risks associated with the use of antibiotics as growth promoters for livestock.

Antimicrobial resistance prevents medicines such as antibiotics from treating diseases effectively, as microorganisms evolve when they are exposed to the drugs used to treat them – making it harder to protect humans and animals from harmful illnesses.

Talks on the issue again brought forward latent trade tensions, with agricultural exporting countries in Latin America expressing caution about the proposed new commitments. Sources said that EU members had favoured strong new language on the topic.

Ministers eventually agreed on steps such as requiring treatment with antibiotics to be prescribed by veterinarians or other people who had first received appropriate training.

Sources told Bridges that the sensitivity of the issue had meant talks had progressed in successive spurts, with officials frequently having to call their capitals to consult chief veterinary officers on the proposals that were being made.

Information technology in farming

The G-20 ministers’ action plan also instructs the group’s agriculture deputies to consider recommendations on information and communication technology (ICT) that were put forward in a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with inputs from other international agencies.

When G-20 agriculture ministers met last June in Xi’an, China, they stepped back from earlier proposals to launch a new platform on information and communications technology. (See Bridges Weekly, 9 June 2016)

“We will strengthen our efforts to improve the ICT skills of farmers and farm workers via training, education, and agricultural extension services,” said the action plan, which singled out in particular the needs of smallholders, women, and youth.

Taking stock of actions

G-20 agriculture ministers also agreed they would take stock of the actions they had launched since France held the group’s presidency in 2011. With food prices unusually high and volatile at the time, the French G-20 presidency saw member countries agree to a swathe of initiatives of food security, ranging from measures to improve the transparency of market information in agriculture through to agreements on export restrictions affecting humanitarian food aid. (See Bridges Weekly, 9 November 2011)

Since then, while some G-20 hosts have moved to launch new initiatives or build consensus around particular ideas, others decided not to convene meetings of agriculture ministers at all during their presidency. At the Xi’an ministerial, the G-20 agreed for the first time that the group’s agriculture ministers should meet regularly.

With the stock-taking exercise due to be carried out under the upcoming Argentine G-20 presidency, the Berlin declaration instructed the ministers’ deputies to prepare terms of reference for the initiative beforehand.

ICTSD reporting.

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