The importance of global food security
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A second food crisis in as many years is a wake-up call. At a meeting in the Italian town of L’Aquila last year, the leaders of the G8 pledged to enhance global food security to prevent a repetition of the 2007-08 shortages. Last week’s extension of Russia’s grain ban and eruption of food riots in Mozambique shows how much needs to be done to meet this goal.
The parallels with the last crisis should not be overstated. Despite the recent spike in wheat, food prices are still well below the peaks they reached in early 2008.
Nonetheless, once again, an initial spike in wheat prices, caused by adverse weather events, is pushing other commodities higher. The initial rise has then been exacerbated by export bans. True, only Russia has so far imposed a formal embargo. But there are informal restrictions on exports from Ukraine and Kazakhstan. These disrupt international markets and promote hoarding. While reserves are higher than two years ago, they are not sufficiently deep to absorb a serious supply shock.
If we did not have the baleful example of 2007-08, this would already be a significant crisis. Coming so soon after the last one, it is call to action. It would be irresponsible to expect the benign conditions of the past to return.
Focusing on food security is sensible. The link between food and political stability in the developing world is clear. The crisis of 2007-08 sparked widespread riots, bringing down governments in Haiti and Madagascar. Last week’s unrest in Mozambique was provoked by a sudden 30 per cent hike in the bread price.
Things can be done. Most importantly, there is a need for greater investment in irrigation and other measures to improve land quality as well as crop resilience. Developed countries have focused too much on food aid rather than providing development assistance. The US, for instance, spends 20 times more on the former than the latter in Africa, according to a report last year from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This balance needs to change.
Steps should be taken to mitigate the severity of crises when they strike. Bigger reserves will probably be needed, as will international rules to clear up the circumstances under which countries can suspend agricultural exports.
This will take more than fine words. The financial crisis has squeezed aid budgets. It is never easy to reach multilateral trade agreements. But as recent events have demonstrated, the L’Aquila agenda is as important as ever.
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