Rising food prices threaten to drive more people into poverty and hunger, and some former World Food Prize laureates say that means the United States and other countries should reconsider their subsidies for biofuels and spend more to help poor farmers improve production.
Higher food prices “will tip more countries into turmoil in circumstances in which it will be extremely difficult for present and emerging regimes to meet the expectations of their people,” said Monty Jones, a plant breeder in Africa who received the World Food Prize in 2004.
People in poor countries are more vulnerable to increases in food prices because they spend a large percentage of their incomes on food, said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the 2001 laureate. The Cornell University economist is the former director of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C.
Poor small-scale farmers don’t necessarily benefit from higher crop prices either, said Catherine Bertini, who was honored in 2003 for her leadership of the U.N. World Food Program, the largest distributor of food assistance.
“Yes, you make more when you sell your own production, but that still doesn’t help you buy more food, as the prices of everything are higher,” she said.
The long-term solution to higher food prices is for the United States and other governments to help poor, small-scale farmers increase their production, said David Beckmann, last year’s co-laureate and president of Bread for the World, an advocacy group. “This area has been neglected for decades.”
Beckmann is an economist and Lutheran minister.
Recent increases in the price of corn, wheat and other commodities have rekindled concerns that rising food costs could trigger unrest in poor countries where people often spend more than half their income feeding their families. Former President Bill Clinton warned that subsidizing biofuel production could lead to political unrest, and he called for periodic reassessments of U.S. ethanol policy.
The World Bank estimates that 44 million people have been driven into poverty since last June because of rising food prices. World Bank economists say that ethanol production has played a part in increasing the price of corn.
Lawmakers have shown little interest in rolling back federal biofuel usage mandates, but ethanol subsidies are under attack in Congress, as is a major agricultural development initiative, called Feed the Future, that sprang from the 2008 food crisis. The program aims to increase food production in poor countries through better farming methods and improvements in storing, transporting and marketing crops.
The Des Moines Register posed questions about the impact of food prices and what should be done about them to the World Food Prize laureates. Here are some excerpts of their responses:
Question: Are you worried about the impact of spikes in global prices on the poor in the developing world?
Answer: Catherine Bertini, World Food Prize 2003: “This is only the beginning. In 2008, over 30 countries had food riots — but those were in the cities, with people not as poor as most farmers, protesting the higher prices they have to pay. In many cases, the governments acted by controlling prices, which quieted some crowds, but made the poor farmers poorer. Yet there are almost a billion people, the vast majority in rural areas, who cannot survive if they are much poorer. Some don’t survive already.”
David Beckmann, World Food Prize 2010: “Poor people around the world spend a disproportionate amount of their budgets on food. When food prices fluctuate, they are forced to reduce the amount and nutritional quality of the food they consume or cut back on other expenses such as education and health care. As we saw in 2008, the volatility of food prices can quickly push millions into poverty.”
Per Pinstrup-Andersen, World Food Prize 2001: “Poor people do not have buffers such as assets and opportunities to borrow when prices are high. Therefore they cannot defend themselves against serious consequences of price fluctuations.”
Question: Is there anything that the U.S. government and other governments should do or not do in the short term to address the spike in food prices?
Answer: Monty Jones, World Food Prize 2004: “All governments should re-examine their policies on agricultural subsidies, biofuels and food exports in the context of the consequences of higher food prices on their own and global security.”
Pinstrup-Andersen: “The U.S. government should abolish all subsidies and mandates for biofuel derived from resources that could be used for food production. Furthermore, the U.S. should make food or cash aid available to poor people in poor countries when local food prices increase. The U.S. should remove trade distortions in the food market and put pressure on other countries to do the same. Since climate change is one of the factors causing food price spikes, the U.S. should enhance its efforts to reduce global warming. Finally, the U.S. should regulate speculation on the future markets for food commodities.”
Beckmann: “The U.S. and other governments should help poor countries strengthen their safety nets and provide food aid that meets the needs of populations most at risk, especially pregnant women and young children. Research has shown that obtaining good nutrition during the crucial 1,000 days of life — a period that begins with a woman’s pregnancy and ends with her child’s second birthday — can have a crucial impact on a child’s development and health and thus help to break the cycle of poverty.”
Bertini: “What can be done? There are many answers. Governments have to keep or make their borders open for trade; they must avoid short-term pricing policies.”
Question: Have we reached a higher plateau in commodity and food prices? If so, are there long-term measures the U.S. or foreign governments should take?
Answer: Pinstrup-Andersen: “I believe that the long-term food price trend will be down from the present, but we will continue to see more price volatility than before due to climate change, speculation and adverse government policies.”
Beckmann: “What is clear is that food prices are much more volatile due to climate change, higher fuel prices, and increased demand. Long-term solutions include investing in small-holder agriculture in developing countries through innovative programs like the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative. This area has been neglected for decades, and investing in small-holder agriculture will help raise incomes, improve agricultural productivity and food supply in the world’s poorest countries, which are also the most vulnerable to volatile food prices.”
Bertini: “Donors and governments must put a high priority on helping farmers to become more productive. For the poor, for economies, and for worldwide stability, there is no more important action — or answer.”
Jones: “The present floods, droughts and political unrest indicate that the food supply gaps will continue to widen, causing prices to continue to rise. The U.S. government should renew its commitment to providing resources for improving the efficiency of effectiveness of food value chains.”
He also said Congress should extend a law that offers lower tariffs on products from African countries.