Toward a New Global Governance System for Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition

March 31, 2008
by Joachim von Braun and Nurul Islam


Toward a New Global Governance System for Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition 
What Are the Options?

The current world food and agricultural policy system is in disarray. For some time, we have observed the symptoms of this disarray with concern. These symptoms include incoherent or inadequate responses to exploding food prices; the slowdown in agricultural productivity growth; looming water problems; a disorderly response to higher energy prices; rapid concentration in multinational agribusiness corporations without the necessary institutional innovation to guide them; lack of progress in addressing scarcity; adverse impacts of climate change on agriculture; widespread nutrition problems, including hunger, obesity, and chronic diseases; and agriculture-related health risks, such as avian influenza. Governments and international institutions have notoriously underinvested in public goods related to agriculture, food, and nutrition, such as rural infrastructure, agricultural research, and rural institutions, which have international spillover effects and global impact.

National policies are central, but the increasing globalization of the agrifood system calls for collaboration across country borders to adequately address new opportunities and challenges. The world food system that has evolved over recent decades has not effectively achieved food safety, good health, and sound nutrition for the poor and hungry. Improved institutional architecture and governance is needed to ensure that the following functions in the agriculture, food, and nutrition system operate effectively and efficiently at the global level:


  1. research, innovation, and intellectual property rights (IPRs);
  2. trade and standards;
  3. food safety and health;
  4. private investment and competition policy;
  5. climate change, adaptation, and mitigation;
  6. cross-boundary water management; and
  7. natural resource use related to, for instance, soils and biodiversity.

For most of these functions, some institutions, conventions, declarations, and organizations already exist, but we believe that there is ample room for scaling them up, efficiently coordinating them, or increasing their effectiveness. Current global investments in these areas—so vital for the international community—are clearly suboptimal. Too little research and development (R&D) is taking place on the crops and technologies of most interest to poor farmers. Trade policies and standards are in some cases harming poor countries’ capacity to develop their own agricultural systems. Food safety standards are not sufficiently harmonized. The absence of appropriate international institutions to guide competition has resulted in noncompetitive markets and trade behaviors—private and public—at the global level. The world is investing far too little in mitigating and adapting to climate change in agriculture. Cross-boundary disputes over water are almost certain to become worse in the future as resources come under increasing pressure. And patterns of natural resource use too often pose threats to the global commons, such as biodiversity.

The roles and structures of the global organizations addressing agriculture, food, and related health issues—the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)—have evolved over the past six decades. Individually, they all serve important functions, but collectively they may now require rethinking and adjustment to meet new and emerging challenges related to agriculture, food, and nutrition in a comprehensive fashion in the coming decades. 

Our comments here are designed to stimulate a dialogue on what the future global institutional architecture and governance of agriculture, food, and nutrition might look like and how it might be achieved. A focused discussion at the global level seems overdue. The questions are:


  1. If we were to design a global governance system for agriculture, food, and nutrition, what would it look like?
  2. How should the governance system be designed so that it can adapt well to the changing needs for global public goods in the future?
  3. What type of structure should the international governance system have?
  4. How should the current governance system be reformed?
  5. What are the roles of the different actors, including new actors such as the private sector and civil society, in a future global governance system for agriculture, food, and nutrition?
  6. How would the system of existing international organizations, including their structure and interrelationships, be changed?
  7. What role should the United Nations (UN), the Group of 8, and various groups of developing countries play in such a reform process?

Here are some initial thoughts on the broad outlines of options for change in global governance and coordination of the agricultural system. There are three options—not mutually exclusive—for change.

The first option is to maintain the current institutions and make marginal improvements. This option could involve, for example, strengthening the UN and CGIAR systems for agriculture, food, and nutrition in terms of their effectiveness, their governance, and their resources, as they are clearly underfunded.

The second option is to form an innovative government network—that is, to strengthen government-to-government systems for decisionmaking in the areas of agriculture, food, and nutrition through a set of agreements and conventions. More structured networks could be created between institutions within governments. Such steps are beginning to be taken in some fields, such as public health, but not much in the areas of agriculture, food, and nutrition.

A third option is to expand the current system to explicitly engage the new players in the global food system—the private sector and civil society, including large private foundations—together with national governments in new or significantly reorganized international organizations and agreements. Given that the global food system is in reality no longer governed only by governments, this inclusive approach seems worthwhile now.

The three options are listed in order from quite realistic to rather utopian. Moving forward may require a combination of these three options. One approach to implementation might be to establish a superstructure (for example, a panel appointed by the UN leadership) to guide changes in the global governance of agriculture, food, and nutrition across the existing specialized institutions and organizations. Coming to a meaningful synthesis of the three options will require leadership on the part of the governments of the world. Countries with leading roles in the global agricultural system now go beyond just European nations and the United States to include Brazil, China, India, and others. Leadership could well come from the developing countries, and not only the largest ones.

It is clearly time to re-examine the global architecture and system for governing agriculture, food, and nutrition—all of which fall between the cracks of much of the current global governance structure—to determine how best to address the challenges the world now faces. Small adjustments will not achieve the needed changes. The ultimate goal must be to quickly come closer to a world that sustainably provides each person with enough food to live a healthy and productive life as envisioned in the Millennium Development Goals. The current system does not live up to this task. The leading global organizations involved with agriculture, food, and nutrition themselves should explore these issues further and invite a global dialogue for change.

Joachim von Braun is director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Nurul Islam is an emeritus senior research fellow at IFPRI.

This is a slightly revised version of the commentary of the same title that appears in the March issue of IFPRI Forum.