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Briefing: Lessons from past food crises

World leaders gather in Rome Tuesday for a UN food crisis conference. What does history teach about how to handle such shortages?

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2008

Price hike casualty: The World Food Program stopped its free rice at Cambodia schools.

Heng Sinith/AP

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A burgeoning population. Soaring energy costs. Rising demand for meat. A catastrophic harvest. A sudden run on the grain market – and an 80 percent surge in food prices in three years.

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A brief run-down of the current world food crisis? Yes, but it also applies to the early 1970s – the last time the collective cupboard was bare. Despite similarities, today's food price shock also has some striking features which sets it apart from past crises.

As world leaders gather in Rome Tuesday for a three-day United Nations conference on what steps to take to address the international food crisis, they might study what lessons can be learned from the recent pages of history.

How unusual is this food crisis?

The current situation is hardly unprecedented. The 1972 alarm, triggered by a hungry Soviet Union seeking to compensate for failed grain harvests, had brutal knock-on effects in East Africa and the Asian subcontinent. Farm prices didn't start falling until 1975, once Washington and Moscow reached an agreement on grain trade. The deal sought to regulate Soviet grain purchases and calm markets by removing any sudden spikes in demand that would drain stockpiles. The episode left a clear lesson: transparency and regular trading between big market players can prevent price spikes.

Prior to 1972, anyone who has read John Steinbeck's early works will know about the privations of the 1930s. This was the most lasting food shock of the past century. It started during the Great Depression and was extended by World War II, as trading between nations broke down.

But Prof. Tim Lang, a prominent British food industry expert, says it was this shock that produced the modern agronomic era, where science took aim at boosting farm productivity.

Food prices also spiked in the late 1980s, and again in the mid 1990s after a drought crimped US grain supplies. On both occasions, markets settled down as farmers responded by planting more crops.

How does this crisis compare?

It's similar – and yet different. The World Food Program highlights four principal drivers. Two are familiar: the rise in oil prices which affect the entire value chain of food production, and weather-related events (bad harvests, particularly in Australia). Two are new: the diversion of crops for use in biofuels, and the rising prosperity of the world's two most populous nations, China and India.

How much grain to produce one pound of meat?

Chicken = 2.6 pounds of feed

Pork = 6.5 pounds of feed

Beef = 7.0 pounds of feed

Source: USDA Economic Research Service