Food prices are high again. In December 2010, prices — according the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s measurement of a group of food commodities — soared higher than the peak of the 2008 food prices. While new figures have not been released, reports are saying that prices for staple foods in developing countries like rice and wheat are climbing and the suspicious absence of rioting is starting to reverse. Riots in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen and Pakistan might just be the start for a tumultuous year. But while these riots were not triggered by high food prices -– high food prices certainly only add to citizens’ gripes with their governments.
There are a number of factors at play: Adverse weather is driving grim grain projections in South America and the US, increasing demands for biofuels made from food crops, oil surpassing $100 a barrel for the first time since October 2008, expectations that Russia’s export bans will be extended beyond 2011 and that others are starting to hoard or panic-buy. All this suggests that prices will continue to climb. And while the G20 debates the role of financial speculation in influencing food prices more hungry people could take to the streets.
But more importantly, hungry people don’t need to be hungry. Hunger is a symptom of poverty. First of all, there’s enough food in this world to feed everyone, it’s just not equitably distributed. Where food may be available, many people also just don’t have the money to buy enough to eat. Those that farm for a living often don’t have the resources to grow enough to sell to afford basic necessities, including food. Matter of fact, most people who experience hunger don’t have enough money to buy food, rather than that there isn’t enough food for them to eat. So, it’s not just about staving off hunger, but also promoting better nutrition where people are less vulnerable to disease and infection, and building rural economies. So, addressing the root cause of poverty will help solve the hunger problem along with many others.
Yet, “we” seem fixated on the causes of high and rising food prices and debating what to do about them, rather than enabling poor people’s economic development so that their pocketbooks can handle the ups and downs in food prices. Whether these high prices are here for the short or long-term, it pushes people into poverty and makes it just that much harder for others to climb out. In dire cases, particularly for children, it can lead to under-nutrition that has irreversible life-time consequences and even lead to death.
So, let’s put a little less effort into trying to point a finger at one price driver –- be it climate change, biofuels, trade measures, financial speculation or just good old supply and demand –- and put a little more effort in trying to do something about it. The food crisis in 2008 promoted global leaders to commit $22.5 billion to invest in agriculture and food security, a third of which was additional to existing aid budgets, but nearly 3 years later, what have they done? According to the donors themselves, without any third-party verification, they had disbursed only $6.5 billion of the $22.5 in April 2010. And now? It’s unclear. Especially with respect to European donors who haven’t been very forthcoming about their aid budgets for agriculture as of yet. And in the US, budget debates are very worrying. In a worst case scenario, budgets for the Feed the Future Initiative will drop dramatically and the funding that the US pledged to the Global Food Security and Agriculture Program, a newly created multilateral fund for agriculture, could disappear.
Though, one thing we do know is that Africa hasn’t been hit as hard this time around by high prices -– at least not yet. Why? Well, the World Bank says that greater investments in agriculture that improve productivity so that African countries don’t rely so much on imported food have helped cushion the blow. Well, how do you like that? Investments in agriculture help poor countries deal with high food prices. Donors, national governments and private sector…are you listening? Smart investments in agriculture are what we need more of. While issues such as the impact of increased droughts, floods and changing rainfall patterns on food productivity or the behaviors of financial speculators will need to be addressed; we cannot ignore that no matter what, we need to invest in agriculture, in poor countries, and help the poorest of the poor if we’re going to reduce poverty and hunger.