How to ease the squeeze on food access
Rich nations must act to ensure supply, experts say.
Surging food prices present an enormous long-term challenge for the world, but practical steps to address the challenge are within reach here and now.Skip to next paragraph
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That's the message from farming and food-policy experts at a time when hunger and the high cost of grains have become a source of political tension worldwide.
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.
"Cash transfers … will make the difference between life and death for many," says Peter Hazell, a farming expert at Imperial College in London. Advanced nations, he says, should "slow down, particularly on the [biofuel] mandates, and invest heavily in agricultural development."
The current problem is not a shortage of food but rather prices that are soaring too fast, especially for the 2 billion people with incomes of about $2 per day or less.
But that problem – serious enough to spark riots in some African nations and the toppling of a government in Haiti – hints at a longer-run challenge. With world population rising, nations need to produce a lot more food, and they must do so while addressing environmental concerns from greenhouse-gas emissions to water supplies.
But for all the challenges, humanity has historically found answers.
The stakes involve more than humanitarian relief.
"This is also a national security issue," says Andrew Natsios, a former director of the US Agency for International Development who teaches at Georgetown University in Washington. He points to the prospect that more governments could fall due to food-related civil unrest.