24 January, 2009

Whatever happened to the world food crisis?

There was a lot of stuff in the media last year about how food prices across the world were rising to unprecedented levels, with the result that many people could no longer afford to eat properly, or could only afford to eat by cutting back on luxuries like educating their children. I have not really heard anything about all this since last summer. So, has the world food crisis gone away? It strikes me as at least possible that rising food prices were driven by rising oil prices; with oil prices having peaked and collapsed, food prices may well have fallen to more affordable levels. Or maybe economic meltdown in the First World has made the media that bit less interested in the economic travails of the Third World poor. What do you think?


dunc said...

Ooh, can I pick the intricate web of interrelated reasons option.

I seem to remember one of the cited reasons for high food prices was the increasing use of crop land for bio-fuels. Though I’m not sure how common it’s becoming, I guess in a global recession the amount of travel people do goes down too.

There was a good argument in New Scientist for more widespread cultivation of potatoes – one reason was because they’re too bulky to trade in large quantities so their price fluctuates with fuel price much less.

You can definitely see it making headlines again though, the media spotlight isn't on food prices at the moment but nothing has really been done to solve the underlying problems.

ian said...

I reckon with falling energy prices, biofuel cultivation might be falling off a bit. Even with high oil prices, they often needed subsidies to be viable.

Potatoes are all very well, but I live in a country where an eighth of the population starved to death as a result of over-dependence on that crop. They are super nutritious and hard to move around, but they are also vulnerable to blight.

Celeste said...

maybe all those hungry people died so they're not hungry any more? or maybe their stomachs are filled with goodwill about Barack Obama? Or the bombing of Gaza was more exciting? Really I think there were probably an enormous number of hungry people for a long time before it was reported as a crisis, and those people continue to be hungry, but a crisis can only last for so long, and then it becomes the status quo, and as such is no longer newsworthy. I did a semester in college in 1990 called "Who goes hungry? Formulating a world food policy for the year 2000". There was a food crisis then too, and I guess we didn't solve it.

CS Ferguson said...

I believe that even now 10-25% of the Irish potato crop is lost each year due to blight. The trouble is that potatoes are remarkably genetically similar, even as far as staple foodstuffs go. I also think it's kinda frightening how westerners are claiming that an acceptable way out of a partially fuel-demand driven food shortage is to get people in poorer countries to abandon traditional decadent luxuries like wheat and rice.

At a guess Ian, I'd say it's probably a bit of both, though I'd reckon mostly the latter. News agendas have very little to do with what's actually going on.

Ken said...

I think you are right that much of it had to do with rising oil prices in 2008 but I suspect there are other significant factors as well. Rice prices rose from approximately $400 a tonne at the start of 2008 to nearly $1000 a tonne in May before they started to drop rapidly. Oil prices peaked two months later. Rice prices now are about 40% higher then they were at the start of 2008 (depending on grain).
Bio-fuels would certainly seem to have had some contribution though I never found the argument that the world bank put forward that they were responsible for 75% of the prices increases entirely convincing. Even the WB seems to have backed away from that statement claiming that it came from a working paper. Despite this I don't there has been much of a drop in US biofuel production mainly because it is so heavily subsidised.
There are reports that food prices will rise again in 2009 as the credit crunch will hit farmers in the developing world as they are unable to borrow money for seed and fertilizer. If this happens along with the associated food riots my guess it will be back in the news.

ian said...

Hi Colin... if I'd known you were reading I would have attributed the potato blight comment to you.

Ken - my suspicion is that the credit crunch will also bid down the price of food in the first world, as people will not have as much money to spend on things they are going to eat.

Ken said...

I'd say that the credit crunch will have very limited impact overall on the demand for food in the developed world. Yes it may hit the organic market and more people will shop in Lidl but it won't have much impact on the amount of food we consume, especially not the volume of staples. I doubt that someone who loses their job and goes on the dole eats any less bread, rice or potatoes than when they were working. They may consume less meat although I guess that they would first resort to just eating cheaper cuts.

ian said...

I hear what you're saying, but it's how much people spend on food that makes the difference, not how much they eat. People in the first world buying from Lidl/Aldi and equivalents should bid down food prices. Now whether food prices in the first world going down would lead to third world prices going the same way is another question.