The new BRICS 11 can make a mark — and African food sovereignty is the perfect place to start
The 15th BRICS Summit held in South Africa from Aug 22 to 24 hit the headlines for two key reasons. First, it was the first time that in its current composition the BRICS boasted of the largest contribution to global GDP — 32 percent versus the G7's 31 percent. Second was its landmark decision to expand the membership by including six new countries — Argentina, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
This latter outcome is part of a broader transition that the BRICS is making. From discussions of de-dollarization to expansion of its membership to African development — all of these are significant questions relating to BRICS' external engagement, not just cooperation among themselves which has been the primary focus of their summits till date.
The G7, which first met as the G6 in 1975, made a similar transition between 1978 and 1979 — going beyond coordination of their own economies to discussing their external policies on aid, for instance.
But it was also important for another major reason, linked to a little-understood feature of the current BRICS — their centrality to global food production, supply and, crucially, food sovereignty. Indeed, this summit took place against the backdrop of a global cost-of-living crisis, and, more specifically, food inflation.
In 2018, the founding BRICS countries accounted for over 50 percent of the world's gross agricultural production, yet just 40 percent of the world's population. Brazil, for instance, was the fourth-largest agricultural producer as of 2020, valued at $135.8 billion. Brazil is also the top exporter of soybeans, raw sugar and poultry produce. While India has self-sufficiency in grain production, it also has significant exports in cotton, meat and soybeans, and in 2019 was the ninth largest global agricultural exporter. China's 2019 agricultural output accounted for over a quarter of global output. New entrant Ethiopia became self-sufficient in wheat this year. The fact is, the BRICS of today is a real "food power" for the globe as well as for Africa, as they export significant amounts to the continent.
Within the group, Brazil was the largest exporter of agricultural products — worth almost $9 billion in 2022 — to Africa, while importing products worth less than $1 billion from the continent. Several African countries are more directly dependent on India — both the world's second-largest rice producer and exporter — for food security than they are on Ukraine. Out of 150 global buyers of Indian rice, Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo and Guinea were among the top eight.
Hence, when India restricted rice exports recently, these countries experienced significant food inflation. Other countries in similar situations as these African countries had to take significant steps to avoid inflation. For instance, Nepal requested an exemption from New Delhi's rice export restrictions and sent 30 tons of tomatoes to India in exchange.
It is not just BRICS' policy decisions that matter. For instance, the recent heavy flooding in China hit major rice-producing areas, such as the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and affected corn and rice supplies. Had African countries been more dependent on Chinese corn and rice, they would have felt this as well. In fact, among the founding members of BRICS, China is the only low-level exporter of agricultural products to African countries while it has increased the absolute value of imports from the continent over the past five years, backed by increasing investment in the continent on productivity and scale of diverse agricultural products.
Why does this matter?
The BRICS 11 have significant capacity individually and collectively to support Africa's agricultural development. But the key is to do so in a way that differs from how the G7 supports food security on the continent. In all G7 (in some years G8) statements and communiques issued since 1979, the solution to food problems in low- and middle-income countries has usually been to ship more agricultural aid to these poor countries. Such helpful aid is effective in the short term, but it can also act as subsidy for agricultural exports, while undermining long-run incentives for local production in the receiving countries.
The key for BRICS is to focus on food sovereignty, not just food security.
The experience of BRICS countries becoming successful food producers as well as exporters — often being self-sufficient in key staples — are critical for African countries seeking to escape the grip of import dependency. From India's green revolution to China's poverty eradication model under which agricultural modernization played a key role — each BRICS country has some lessons and potential partnerships around specific agricultural products to offer when it comes to food sovereignty.
An approach of collective development, much like China's win-win strategy, is a possible route for BRICS to explore in the new era of multipolarity.
Over the years, BRICS has grown in profile and its summits now command global attention. Owing to the fact that the BRICS bloc commands a significant section of global GDP, there is now a strong influence over the commodity and energy sectors, as opposed to the G7 which sees its influence mostly in financial services and markets. The new intake of six countries also bolsters this position because many countries therein are already working partners with China and Russia.
Economic cooperation and global governance are a likely focus for the grouping, but specific issues like climate change will require different strategies from what the G7, for example, offered to Global South countries in the past. It can also be expected that BRICS will take a more gradual strategy to adopting food security measures as well as the induction of new members as has been observed.
The author is a policy analyst at Development Reimagined, an international development consultancy. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.