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Women selling grains wait for customers at the Bodija market in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria (AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE)
Women selling grains wait for customers at the Bodija market in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria (AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE)

Food for thought at the G20 Add to ...

Whatever else G20 finance ministers and central bankers manage to agree on in Paris, finding a way to shield the world's poorest from sky-high food prices could have, by far, the most immediate impact.

France, of course, has tried to push the issue as this year's G20 host, through two main avenues: urging debate over the role of speculators in pushing commodity prices higher, and convening a special meeting of agriculture ministers to eventually advise leaders on how to tackle food shortages and inflation.

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Trouble is, neither track is likely to yield anything concrete.

Most research -- including from sober institutions like the Bank of Canada -- suggests there's little to no evidence that commodity markets are to blame and should be reined in by tighter regulation, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested. Indeed, John Murray, one of Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney's deputies, said in a speech last week that while "excessive investor interest" may be contributing to price swings, ``the supporting evidence is at best mixed.'' Policy makers therefore might think twice before butting in, Mr. Murray said.

As for the side meeting of agriculture ministers, farm subsidies continue to divide the so-called advanced economies and the emerging powers that are supplanting them. Canada has scaled back some subsidies, but few others in the developed world -- France included -- have shown willingness to follow suit, even as emerging economies from China to Brazil, places where hundreds of millions still live in poverty, have much at stake in controlling the cost of basic staples. Does anyone believe that countries which have done little collectively since 2008, when the global crisis seemed an equal threat to each and every one of them, will now cast self-interest aside and abandon measures deemed key to their individual political hides?

Still, there's reason to think G20 officials will try to come up with something in Paris on food inflation, because soaring costs are still contributing to unrest across the Middle East, and because the group's biggest players will be eager to provide any glimmer of hope that they can come together when it counts.

Carl Weinberg, chief economist with High Frequency Economics in Rhinebeck, N.Y., said Thursday that, in theory, the meeting could produce "a meaningful agreement to ship grain from ample U.S. and Chinese stockpiles to the poorest nations,'' since doing so would be a "refreshing source'' of action for the G20.

"If the G20 cannot agree on this, we will give up hoping that it can ever accomplish anything,'' Dr. Weinberg sniffed.

Last November in Seoul, although G20 leaders found agreement on the economic issues at the heart of the group's mandate elusive, a quiet consensus emerged on a new, business-focused approach to fighting global poverty championed by former prime minister Paul Martin, among others. That allowed the leaders to score a much-needed victory at an otherwise fractious, and not particularly successful summit.

If small victories eventually add up to the kind of momentum that leads to larger ones, then the G20 could use a few more, and badly.

Keeping poor and destitute people alive while food prices are elevated is as good a place to start as any.

Not least because the G20 seems light years from being able to do anything meaningful on what may be the biggest culprit of all behind the shortages that are causing prices to spike: climate change.

Follow on Twitter: @jeremytorobin

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