Our Daily Bread: Without public investment, the food crisis will only get worse

During the eighteen months after January 2007, cereal prices doubled, setting off a world food crisis. In the United States, rising food prices have been a pocketbook annoyance. Most Americans can opt to buy lower-priced sources of calories and proteins and eat out less frequently. But for nearly half of the world’s population—the 2.5 billion people who live on less than $2 per day—rising costs mean fewer meals, smaller portions, stunted children, and higher infant mortality rates. The price explosion has produced, in short, a crisis of food security, defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as the physical and economic access to the food necessary for a healthy and productive life. And it has meant a sharp setback to decades-long efforts to reduce poverty in poor countries.

The current situation is quite unlike the food crises of 1966 and 1973. It is not the result of a significant drop in food supply caused by bad weather, pests, or policy changes in the former Soviet Union. Rather, it is fundamentally a demand-driven story of “success.” Rising incomes, especially in China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, have increased demand for diversified diets that include more meat and vegetable oils. Against this background of growing income and demand, increased global consumption of biofuels and the American and European quest for energy self-sufficiency have added further strains to the agricultural system. At the same time, neglected investments in productivity-improving agricultural technology—along with a weak U.S. dollar, excessive speculation, and misguided government policies in both developed and developing countries—have exacerbated the situation. Climate change also looms ominously over the entire global food system.

In short, an array of agricultural, economic, and political connections among commodities and across nations are now working together to the detriment of the world’s food-insecure people...