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Food prices: facing the challenges ahead

World food prices have increased by 46% since the end of 2006. The price of rice, the staple food for the bulk of humanity, has doubled in the past year. These price hikes, as well as increases for energy and other commodities, have led to food riots and protests in many countries. Concern CEO Tom Arnold shares his thoughts on the challenges ahead.

This new era of high food prices raises basic political and moral issues for leaders in positions of responsibility and for ordinary citizens. The right to food is a basic human right. But even before the current crisis, this right has been widely violated.

Some 900 million people go to bed hungry every night. Almost 10 million children under the age of five die annually from the effects of hunger and preventable diseases. Unless rapid and effective action is taken, the high food prices will lead to an increase in these scandalous numbers, the gap between rich and poor will widen, and the risks of political instability will increase.

The actions required are both short and longer term.

The main short term priority is to ensure that the poorest people are provided with food or with cash to enable them to buy food. The UN’s World Food Programme is the international organisation charged with operating a safety net for the poorest people. Rich world governments pledge either food or cash which the WFP, working with governments of poor countries and NGOs such as Concern, distribute.

The increase in prices has reduced the amount of food the WFP can purchase; it requires an additional $500 million to do the work it planned in 2008. If this money is not forthcoming, WFP will have to ration its food and cash to the situations of most terrible need. It already faces the prospect of cutting the basic rations to the people in camps in Darfur by 30%.

There is a strong political and moral case that the oil exporters, the main beneficiaries of the increased oil prices, should provide the bulk of this $500 million.

A second short term issue connects the high prices for oil, energy and food. The high price of oil and the need to reduce carbon emissions has led the US and EU to set ambitious targets to increase the percentage of their future energy needs supplied by biofuels. This is one of the factors in the explosion in food prices.   

But this policy shift on biofuels is being questioned from two perspectives. The first is a basic moral one. At a recent conference in Alexandria, Egypt on how science can contribute to solving the world’s food/energy/climate change problems, one delegate described US and EU policy on biofuels as “taking the food of the poor to burn in the cars of the rich”.

The second is an efficiency one; whether, when account is taken of the increased inputs and subsidies required to increase the use of biofuels, as well as some of the environmental effects of bringing the additional land into production, the net gain in terms of carbon emissions is justified.

Both factors suggest that the US and the EU should reassess their biofuels policy or at least phase it in at a slower rate.

Three other areas relevant to any long term programme to deal with the food crisis were discussed in Alexandria. 

There was a broad consensus that developing countries should give higher political priority to food security and allocate additional resources to agricultural and rural development. Getting the necessary inputs into the hands of smallholder farmers to grow next year’s crop is a particular priority.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs stated that, under current trends, world population will increase from its current 6.5 billion to nine billion by 2050. Over that same period, partly as a result of the influence of climate change, the pressure on natural resources, particularly water, will become intense.

Sachs suggested that policy makers should consider how the rate of population growth could be slowed so that by 2050, the population might be closer to eight billion rather than nine. Fostering increased economic growth and increasing girls’ access to education are key strategies to reduce population growth rates.

Developments in the life sciences may provide another possibility to deal with the challenges ahead. Astonishing breakthroughs have been made in biotechnology. There has been a massive growth, mainly in South America, China and India, in the use of genetically engineered crops, particularly cotton and soybeans.          .  

But the role biotechnology may play in the future is a major source of political and public controversy, within many countries and internationally. The proponents on both sides of the argument have been conducting a “dialogue of the deaf”. This needs to change.

We need to agree where scientific advances can contribute to improving the lives of the poor. The legitimate fears people have about the safety, or acceptability, of new products need to be taken account of and dealt with through proper regulation. Many developing countries need assistance in developing their scientific and regulatory infrastructure.  

The world faces, over the coming decades, unprecedented challenges, many of them interconnected. Taking the right decisions on the current food crisis, and taking account of the needs of the poorest, will be an important test for other challenges ahead. 

This article was originally published in the Irish Catholic