Planetark.org, March 31, 2008
WASHINGTON/PARIS - Food prices are soaring, a wealthier
Around the globe, people are protesting and governments are responding with often counterproductive controls on prices and exports -- a new politics of scarcity in which ensuring food supplies is becoming a major challenge for the 21st century.
Plundered by severe weather in producing countries and by a boom in demand from fast-developing nations, the world's wheat stocks are at 30-year lows. Grain prices have been on the rise for five years, ending decades of cheap food.
Drought, a declining dollar, a shift of investment money into commodities and use of farm land to grow fuel have all contributed to food woes. But population growth and the growing wealth of
World population is set to hit 9 billion by 2050, and most of the extra 2.5 billion people will live in the developing world. It is in these countries that the population is demanding dairy and meat, which require more land to produce.
"This is an additional setback for the world economy, at a time when we are already going through major turbulence. But the biggest drama is the impact of higher food prices on the poor," Angel Gurria, head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, told Reuters.
In Gurria's native
Global food prices, based on United Nations records, rose 35 percent in the year to the end of January, markedly accelerating an upturn that began, gently at first, in 2002. Since then, prices have risen 65 percent.
In 2007 alone, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's world food index, dairy prices rose nearly 80 percent and grain 42 percent.
"The recent rise in global food commodity prices is more than just a short-term blip," British think tank Chatham House said in January. "Society will have to decide the value to be placed on food and how ... market forces can be reconciled with domestic policy objectives."
Many countries are already facing these choices.
After long opposition,
The European Union and parts of
A number of governments, including
This knee-jerk response to food emergencies can result in farmers producing less food and threatens to undermine years of effort to open up international trade.
"If one country after the other adopts a 'starve-your-neighbour' policy, then eventually you trade smaller shares of total world production of agricultural products, and that in turn makes the prices more volatile," said Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
In the next decade, the price of corn could rise 27 percent, oilseeds such as soybeans by 23 percent and rice 9 percent, according to tentative forecasts in February by the OECD and the UN
Waves of discontent are already starting to be felt. Violent protests hit
Last year, the central bank of
Real commodity prices remained flat or even fell during the rapid industrialization of the
The emergence of
The Chinese, whose rise began in earnest in 2001, ate just 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of meat per capita in 1985. They now eat 50 kilograms (110 pounds) a year.
Each pound of beef takes about seven pounds of grain to produce, which means land that could be used to grow food for humans is being diverted to growing animal feed.
As the West seeks to tackle the risk of global warming, a drive towards greener fuels is compounding the world's food problems.
It is estimated that one in four bushels of corn from this year's US corn crop will be diverted to make fuel ethanol.
"Turning food into fuel for cars is a major mistake on many fronts." said Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group based in
"One, we're already seeing higher food prices in the American supermarket. Two, perhaps more serious from a global perspective, we're seeing higher food prices in developing countries where it's escalated as far as people rioting in the streets."
Similarly, palm oil is at record prices because of demand to use it for biofuel, causing pain for low income families in
But despite the rising criticism of biofuels, the
John Bruton, the European Union's Ambassador to the
The director of the UN World Food Program, Josette Sheeran, is on a global tour in search of donations to fill a $500 million funding gap caused by the rising prices.
But aid and many policy options available to governments for helping the hungry distort markets and cause pain elsewhere in their economies, according to proponents of free markets.
"I was involved in a government that introduced food subsidies in
Others trust that better fertilizers and higher-yielding crops -- some of them genetically modified -- will keep production in line with demand.
Bruce Babcock, an economist at
"It's actually the greatest time in the world to be a farmer around the world,"
Babcock said. "We are going to see fairly substantial increases in production because farmers have never had such a large incentive to increase production."
But others note that expensive seeds and fertilizers are out of reach of farmers in poor countries.
Around the beginning of the 19th Century, British political economist Thomas Malthus said population had the potential to grow much faster than food supply, a prediction that efficient farming consistently proved wrong. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, some are revisiting his predictions.