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Madeleine K. Albright and John D. Podesta

Global food crisis hungers for resolution

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Madeleine K. Albright and John D. Podesta
July 7, 2008

THERE WAS a glimmer of good news in the global food price crisis when Japan announced it will release a portion of its imported rice stockpile and the

High Level UN Food and Agriculture Organization secured financial commitments for short-term food aid and increased research and development into new seeds and the distribution of fertilizer to small farmers. Nonetheless, the dismal state of affairs in the global food situation underscores the need for US leadership in addressing a world agricultural system that is facing new challenges and a painful transition.

The United States can lead the way in achieving lasting global food security with a renewed commitment to long term investment in agricultural development in the world’s poorest nations. Japan, as host nation of this week’s Group of Eight Summit and with US concurrence, must go further than its earlier announcements on rice and release up to 1 million tons of its current stockpile. Key rice producers around the world, including India, Pakistan and Vietnam, should follow suit and fulfill their recent promises to tap their own surpluses to feed the global market.

In the last three years, food prices worldwide have risen 83 percent, sowing the seeds of increased malnutrition, hunger, and political instability. Since 2003, the price of rice has been on a steady climb upward and has risen 141 percent in the last year alone. For much of the world, rice is a key component of the daily diet. Three billion people rely on rice for a third of their calories each day.

The recent surge in food prices has had a devastating effect. In much of the developing world, where 60 percent to 80 percent of a family’s income is spent on food, every 20 percent increase in food prices pushes 100 million more people into the ranks of the poorest of the poor — those who live on less than one dollar a day.

But the problem is not a shortage of rice. In fact, the FAO predicts that rice production in Asia, Africa, and Latin America will rise 2.3 percent from last year. The problem is that rising prices triggered a range of measures that made matters worse. Governments banned exports and held up their reserves, while middlemen hoarded supplies. Consumers, meanwhile, were left to pay the price despite the fact that their incomes are not keeping pace with the escalating cost of fuel and food.

The roots of the food crisis can be found in a complex cycle of factors including skyrocketing energy costs, increased demand from emerging economies, financial turmoil, commodity speculation, drought, and other weather emergencies.

While the release of rice stocks by Japan and increased food aid may help stave off the immediate crisis, the longer term solution is far more complex. A first and mandatory step is to rationalize our agricultural policies and increase our investments in agricultural production. In Africa, for example, the portion of development assistance dedicated to agriculture has declined from 15 percent in the 1980s to 4 percent in 2006. By reversing this trend, we can increase both production and incomes.

The food crisis must be a top priority at this week’s G8 summit. Agriculture continues to experience more trade distortions than any sector in the global economy. For its part, the developed world — particularly the United States, the European Union and Japan — must confront the global impact of our subsidies and tariffs on agricultural products. Barriers to trade between developing countries must also be reduced. The United States should redouble its diplomatic efforts with key food producing countries to discourage government and private sector export restrictions that encourage hoarding.

The evidence is clear that our global agricultural system is broken and that in our interdependent world, food security is a challenge we must tackle together. The actual release of Japan’s imported rice will be a welcome step toward ending the immediate crisis. But over the long term, getting the system right will require heavy political lifting, painstaking negotiations, and the modernization of agricultural policies that have not kept pace with globalization.

Madeleine K. Albright, former US secretary of state, is principal of The Albright Group LLC. John D. Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

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