We need a Paris climate talks to fix the global food system

A farmer shows wheat grains in his hands in southern Idlib countryside, Syria.
A farmer shows wheat grains in his hands in southern Idlib countryside, Syria.
Image: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi
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The Paris climate agreement began its long road to implementation with a formal signing ceremony in New York in April, attended by representatives of some 170 countries. The deal, negotiated last December, has been hailed not only as a breakthrough for climate change but also as a model for how the world can tackle some of its toughest challenges well beyond climate.

Here’s a prime candidate for the Paris treatment: feeding the world in a way that doesn’t cause chaos.

International trade in food has grown markedly in recent decades. Some 20% of food now crosses an international border. That means there’s a good chance that your morning coffee, pre-gym banana, and after-work wine came from somewhere other than the country where you live. But global commodity markets, while delivering broad benefits, are fickle: opaque, distorted by subsidies, and increasingly prone to price spikes and crashes. Farmers struggle to figure out what to plant, when to plant it, and how much to charge for their wares, and when prices crash, they can be left destitute. Poor consumers face the opposite problem: price spikes can mean the difference between going to bed hungry or not. Both sides of the volatility beast can trigger riots or worse. Yet governments, despite repeated attempts, have struggled to cooperate in order to bring more stability to this sensitive space.

Most of their efforts have focused on the World Trade Organization. The WTO is the international organization charged with setting the rules governing international trade. Its members (virtually all the countries in the world) have spent the last twenty years working to reduce logistical and financial barriers to trade. They have succeeded in many ways: international trade has exploded while consumer prices for everything from cars to clothes have declined.

Agriculture was largely left out of the negotiations, however, until the latest round of talks began in 2001. But diplomats found it too difficult to broker a balance that everyone could accept. It’s tough enough to build agreement around manufacturing, as the current presidential campaign attests. But changing the rules of the game for an industry that employs a majority of people in most countries and feeds everyone else is an order of magnitude more difficult. The challenge has multiplied as developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil–which are big enough that trade negotiations can’t ignore them but are still home to hundreds of millions of poor people–joined the negotiating table. It didn’t help that agricultural negotiations are at once highly technical and deeply sensitive politically.

This sort of story sounds awfully familiar to people immersed in the world of climate change. Indeed this precise dynamic dominated climate negotiations until the breakthrough in Paris last year. Climate change talks have struggled since the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to integrate rapidly developing, highly polluting countries, most notably China and India, into accords to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol to that agreement mostly tried to ignore that struggle. It required developed countries to make specific, mandatory cuts to overall emissions by an agreed date. Developing countries were left off the hook, with predictable consequences for the deal’s effectiveness and long-term political credibility.

In the years following Kyoto, despite their dramatic economic growth, those countries refused to agree to mandatory emissions cuts. Governments feared making hard commitments to slash emissions without knowing exactly how those would play out at home. Diplomats at climate negotiations, without the power to change their countries’ energy systems, reflected and amplified that risk aversion. This largely deadlocked negotiations through the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. Beginning then, leaders began to slowly chip away at old system. That culminated in the Paris breakthrough.

To reach agreement in Paris, leaders turned the climate problem inside out. Negotiators accepted that international negotiators’ ability to effectively change domestic energy policies was severely limited. They thus dispensed with the goal of mandatory national emissions reductions. Instead they agreed to a global aspiration of slashing emissions and invited countries to offer their own contributions toward achieving that goal. That triggered domestic efforts within each country to develop emissions-cutting plans (some better than others) that they thought they could make work politically at home. The leaders also agreed to a global system that would monitor each country’s progress, subject it to regular international scrutiny, and require new and stronger efforts every five years. The result? For the first time, China, India, Brazil, the United States, and other major emitters signed up to the same climate agreement.

This bottom up model of reaching agreement has its limits. Countries might not deliver on their plans. And, even if they do, that might not add up to the global goals that leaders have set. But the old way of doing business certainly wasn’t doing better–and the new approach has the potential to yield more.

Indeed the same model could be even better for tackling the world’s food challenges. Take subsidies to farmers. They aim to ensure that farmers receive a decent income even when the weather or commodity prices are bad. And, by encouraging farmers to boost production, they can keep prices low for consumers. Economists broadly conclude that subsidies aren’t the best ways to help farmers or consumers–and they can cost taxpayers massive sums. Voters typically only see their direct benefits, which can make subsidies incredibly difficult to remove–a fact that trade negotiators and proponents of open markets have long rued. A Paris-style agreement on agricultural trade, however, could unlock new flexibility. Governments could, for example, agree on a target date for the removal of subsidies but allow governments the freedom to decide how and how quickly that target is reached. Or, they could commit to increasingly ambitious subsidy reductions over time, and to a set of monitoring rules to increase the odds that they remained on target.

The Paris model could also help prepare trade institutions to handle food price spikes. When prices jump, governments come under enormous public pressure to keep food affordable. Often this pressure leads to major market interventions, up to and including total bans on the export of important foods by big suppliers. Such bans can alleviate domestic price spikes but they can actually make problems worse elsewhere in the world by limiting supply. Trade negotiators have been unable to reach agreement on rules prohibiting export bans and similar policies.

Under a Paris approach, however, governments might not need to agree to a uniform policy. They could commit to being transparent about their intention to intervene in the market, for example, giving other countries time to prepare. Countries could also offer national pledges to limit bans in scope or duration, to minimize any market interruption. In each case, governments would retain the flexibility to protect their people in a crisis while at the same time reducing the chances that international markets would overreact.

In these and other areas, a Paris-style deal on agricultural trade could allow governments to work toward freer markets while keeping farmers and consumers happy. As with the Paris agreement, progress toward national commitments would need to be rigorously monitored in order for everyone to feel confident that pledges were being kept. And countries would need to meet regularly to review and strengthen pledges, to keep the momentum going.

The Paris agreement did not happen overnight. The process began in Copenhagen in 2009, and its success is still not guaranteed. But it was born out of a simple realization: if a perfect agreement, with tough targets and binding enforcement, is not possible, an imperfect but still ambitious agreement might be the best way ahead. Agricultural trade negotiators, frustrated after more than a decade of stalemate, may well find that they agree.