Global food prices reached a historic high in February of this year, surpassing the spikes of 2007-2008. Food riots have occurred in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, and now the Horn of Africa region is on the brink of disaster. This situation has hunger experts on edge. While bad weather is part of problem, high energy prices, increasing use of grain for biofuels, and export restrictions are also contributing to the situation. Our understanding
of the 2008 global food crisis is now informing our reaction to the current situation. Unfortunately, the wrong lessons are being drawn from that experience.
It was just three short years ago that the world was wracked by a series of riots touched off by high food prices that had increased steadily since 2000, and by 50% between 2007 and 2008. While longer term causes were at play in 2008, such as urbanization and changing diets, short term factors were more significant in the immediate run-up to the crisis.
Increasing fuel prices were critical because of the energy intensive nature of most agriculture production. Higher energy prices also made ethanol production more competitive at the time, an industry which used 25% of the US maize crop in 2008 and further contributed to higher grain prices. The other short term drivers of the 2007-2008 situation were speculation in the grain markets and a series of government decisions around the world to restrict grain trade.
In tandem with the current advice to maintain unrestricted grain trade are international assistance efforts since 2008 to disseminate technologies that allow countries to increase their own food production. International agencies are seeking to boost food production through the increasing use of packages of hybrid seeds, pesticides and fertilizers.
Research undertaken by colleagues and I in three West African countries in the aftermath of the 2008 global food crisis suggests that the current policy recommendations are flawed (http://www.macalester.edu/whatshappening/press/2010/ February19asianrice.html).
While restrictions on grain trade clearly pose problems in the short term, pushing for unrestricted grain trade also perpetuates a reliance on imported food. Our study showed that a combination of increasingly cheap rice on the global market, reduced investments in local agriculture, and the dismantling of tariff barriers by West African countries in the 1980s and 1990s (at the behest of the World Bank), had a devastating effect on local rice
producers. By 2008, a region historically known for its rice production was dependent on imports for 40% of its consumption. This free trade approach worked as long as global food prices remained relatively low, but food riots ensued when the price for rice increased by 100% between April, 2007 and March, 2008.
It was the West African country with the most robust domestic rice and coarse grainsectors, Mali, which faired the best in 2008. While the World Bank convinced Mali, like its coastal neighbors, to remove barriers to the grain trade in previous decades, it could not undo the fact that Mali is land locked, making imported grains that much more expensive. It is this country’s land locked nature, a type of natural trade barrier if you will, which allowed its domestic farming sector to prosper and the country to weather the food price fluctuations of 2007-2008.
Since 2008, international advisors have been busy across West Africa encouraging governments to boost production by planting NERICA rice. This hybrid of Asian and African rice varieties is the latest silver bullet purported to solve West Africa’s food problems. The trouble is that NERICA rice requires farmers who have the financial resources to purchase the seeds, fertilizers and pesticides to grow this crop – inputs which will only become more expensive when global energy prices rise again. It is the poorest of the poor who are hungry in West Africa, not relatively wealthy farmers who can afford to grow NERICA rice. Further complications include efforts to have men grow this crop when women are the traditional rice farmers, or the fact that NERICA rice often displaces other crops which are more ecologically appropriate and require fewer inputs.
As we react to the rising grain prices of 2011, let us make sure we correctly understand the lessons of 2008.
First, there are limits to the free market in terms of its ability to deliver food security to the world’s poorest households. As such, some level of tariff protection may be needed if countries are to develop stronger national food systems.
Second, increasing food production via improved seeds packages doesn’t really solve the problem either, especially when this approach favors rich over poor farmers, men over women, or certain types of food crops over others. We have yet to fully explore the potential for expanded food production by low tech approaches that are attuned to local conditions.