A not so funny thing happened on the way to the G20 meeting in Cannes last week.  The leaders from the group of industrial and developing economies were heading in the direction of taking bold action against hunger and poverty and soaring commodity prices that were rattling the global food chain.  Then, in the days before arriving in the ritzy French resort town, they were distracted by the escalating economic calamity in Greece.  Instead of focusing on the poor and ensuring the global food supply, as they pledged to do, they were preoccupied with securing their own economies against the European debt contagion.

The G20 leaders did deliberate some about hunger and food prices.  Their final communiqué repeated the standard concerns from past meetings.  But you have to wade halfway through the statement to find them.  Paragraph 18, about the supervision of commodity derivatives markets: “We agree that market regulators should be granted effective intervention powers to prevent market abuses.”  Paragraph 19, about promoting agriculture production: “We decided to invest in and support research and development of agriculture productivity.”

In the run up to the summit, host country France said food security would be at the top of the agenda, along with other poverty reduction needs of the developing world.  But with 32 paragraphs in the communiqué (the 32nd being a thank you note to France for playing host), boosting food production to feed the world’s ever-expanding appetite didn’t even make the first half cut.  The Greek economic mess blotted out the news from earlier in the week that the world population had reached 7 billion, on the way to an expected 9 billion by 2050.  That news should have been incentive enough for G20 leaders to keep agriculture development a top priority.

This should all be a lesson to the Obama administration as it prepares for the G8 meeting next May in Chicago.  Don’t get sidetracked.  The White House has said it wants to make food security and ending hunger through agriculture development a top agenda item.  Just like they did at President Obama’s first G8 meeting at L’Aquila, Italy in 2009.  There, the president made an impassioned plea – complete with personal references to his Kenyan heritage and smallholder farmers in Africa -- for the rich countries to reverse the neglect of agriculture development.  The leaders were moved, pledging $22 billion over three years.  Obama promised the U.S. would contribute $3.5 billion.

Those three years will be winding down when the G8 convenes in Chicago.  It will be an ideal time to seriously look at what has happened since those pledges were made – stop and start progress, at best -- and to redouble efforts to end hunger and stabilize the global food chain.

The L’Aquila commitments paralleled the creation of President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, which has been under assault from budget cutters in Congress.  Chicago will be a grand stage to breathe new life into that initiative and to make sure other nations join the effort.

The Obama White House wants Feed the Future to be a prime legacy of the administration – a legacy of achievement, not of missed opportunity.

Historical note:

The last time G8 leaders met in France, in the bottled-water mecca of Evian in 2003, hunger and poverty were slated to be top priority items.  But the agenda was sidetracked over squabbling between the allies about the freshly launched war in Iraq.  In the days before the summit, word spread that President George Bush might not even spend one night on French soil, a snub in response to French criticism.  The spotlight of the summit was on the initial meeting between President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac.  Would they shake hands?  That was the overriding question.

The Evian summit came in the middle of the 2003 famine in Ethiopia, when more than 13 million people were on the doorstep of starvation and relying on international food aid.  The summiteers, once the petty posturing was finished, came up with something called the Action Plan Against Famine, Especially in Africa.  It hasn’t worked very well.  For this year, when the G8 summit came again to France, famine once again was ravaging Africa -- millions more people, this time mainly in Somalia, were counting on food aid to hold off starvation.

The Action Plan yielded little action.  That famine still raged indicated the world was still preoccupied with short-term crisis intervention rather than longer-term agriculture development that might prevent such hunger.  The G20 meeting in Cannes was supposed to change that, sending agriculture development into high gear.  Next up, Chicago.