What to do about food?

News about the effects of sky-rocketing food prices is starting to break through to the foreground of public policy discussions. While to this point most of the conversation has focused on the cause or causes of the increase, there are people starting to suggest ways that society needs to respond.

An article by Mark Trumbull published today in the Christian Science Monitor has some specific suggestions:

"Although poor nations are most at risk, much can be done by rich nations to avert a crisis and to set the stage for long-run solutions.

Some of the steps – such as boosting food aid – are obvious. Others are more difficult or politically controversial, but could reap meaningful benefits. Some examples:

  • Ramp up cash-handout programs for people who spend half or more of their income on food.

  • Curb or phase out government mandates or subsidies for using crops as fuel.

  • Expand agricultural research and spread existing technologies throughout Africa, where farmers lag furthest behind.

  • Prepare International Monetary Fund assistance to help food-poor nations cover rising trade deficits.

  • Resist the temptation to tamper with the free-market price signals that will ultimately encourage greater food production. This means resisting price controls or farm subsidies within nations, and keeping trade open among nations."

Additionally the director of the USAID (US Agency for International Development) points out that the national security implications of the developing crisis. He makes additional recommendations about aid delivery mechanisms that are being supported by the US administration, and which may soon be implemented.

The article concludes by pointing out that this does not appear to be a short-term issue. It is expected that the present pressures will intensify squeezing those in extreme poverty more and more in coming years.

Read the full article here.

Comments (2)

I largely agree with this assessment.

But is it politically feasible? In the US the farm lobby is responsible for the government policies that promote use of crops as fuel. (That and the phony claim the policy addresses energy independence and the environment -- on the latter surely just the opposite.) This is the case of a special interest having a focused interest and the public at large not mobilizing or seeing the root of the problem.

In poor countries we have seen many in recent weeks ban export of food. The politics here is that the urban poor are more a threat to those in power than the rural poor (the producers of food). Ironically, it is the rural poor who are often the poorest to begin with; why make them worse off? They probably number as many or more than the urban poor, but aren't getting the same news coverage. Further, export bans lower prices inside the country reducing incentives to produce. Bans on exports across the world will reduce total food production.

A prolonged drought in Australia is responsible for much of the fall in world rice production. The other driver of increasing staple food prices is the growth of the economies of India and China. That's driven up energy prices which factors into fertilizer and transport costs. It's also increased demand for meat; ever calory of meat takes 7 calories of animal feed.

Finally, do we really want to send aid in the form of food in kind? That will depress the local price local producers receive. What about aid in the form of financial assistance to purchase food (locally and abroad) and distribute it?

I certainly agree, John, with your last point. The "short term" step ought to become long term policy. Organized farm supports in both the United States and in the European Union have pressed to export food instead of money, which keeps our prices from fluctuating but undercuts local market incentives for domestic production, and perhaps for development for export in many parts of the Third World.

Marshall Scott

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