The first signs of trouble appeared in 2000, when global grain stocks declined for the first time in several decades, but it was not until the spring of 2007 that the full gravity of what was occurring became clear. During that year, the prices of the principal food staples — rice, corn, soybeans and wheat — effectively doubled throughout the world. This was an unprecedented rise, and it reversed more than 50 years of declining prices. Grain prices dropped by 75 percent between 1950 and the end of the 1980s and then remained low into the first years of the new century.
The results were immediate and devastating: By the most conservative estimates, the number of hungry or chronically malnourished people rose by at least 100 million, to nearly one billion people — that is, to almost one-seventh of the world’s population. Food riots and other forms of unrest broke out throughout the world. One good result was that agriculture was restored to its rightful, central place on the development agenda after decades of being the poor stepchild (the proportion of U.S. foreign aid devoted to agriculture dropped from 17 percent in 1980 to about 3 percent in 2006).
But the root causes of the crisis have yet to be properly addressed. This is particularly serious because while global grain prices have declined substantially since 2008, they are poised to rise again. When they do — and specialists agree that they will, at least in the medium term — the costs in terms of both human suffering and political and social upheaval are likely to make the 2007 price crisis pale by comparison.
It is easy to mock the various conferences, emergency meetings and seemingly endless policy documents that have tried to mitigate the threat but so far have achieved little. In fairness, though, responding effectively will be extraordinarily difficult. Despite what some conspiracy-minded critics have alleged, the crisis has a number of drivers, each one of which would be challenging enough on its own, but which taken together seem to call for a radical restructuring that is hard to imagine in the current political climate.
These drivers include the diversion of grains in North America and Western Europe to biofuel production; higher energy costs, which translate into more expensive chemical fertilizers; and since 2000, financial speculation over staple crops, which causes price fluctuations.
As if this were not bad enough, these changes have been taking place during a period of very rapid population growth. And in some regions with dramatic demographic increases, like sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, climate change is threatening to lower crop yields at precisely the time that more staple foods urgently need to be produced.
Although everyone agrees there is a food emergency, there is little agreement on what should be done.
The conclusion to an op-ed by David Rieff in the New York Times
by MARC F. BELLEMARE
But if the global food crisis is real, it is not unsolvable. One of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century was to make famine — for all of human history a scourge that seemed as inevitable as the other three horsemen of the apocalypse, war, plague, and death — a rarity. Today, famine is almost invariably the product of evil governments, North Korea being the obvious case, or of no government, as in Somalia. The hunger that maims and blights should be consigned to the past, just as the hunger that kills has been.