Food Prices Continue to Rise, an International Food Crisis Looms

The Food Price Index has risen for eight consecutive months, and in February reached an all-time high.


[Flickr: naughty architect]

The last time that food prices were in the news was in 2008, when the food price index soared. These days, we're hearing a lot about the issue once again. Why? Global food prices have surpassed the 2008 peak. The consequences of this persistent rise are yet to be fully realized, yet some are already discussing the imminent possibility of food riots, political unrest, and widespread hunger as a result of pricier food.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is reporting that the food price index has risen for eight consecutive months, and in February reached an all-time high. This index incorporates the price of sugar, oils, meat, dairy, and cereals.

All of these commodities have increased in price, with sugar peaking most dramatically. Particularly problematic are price increases that affect a country's staple crop—the FAO is seeing very high prices for rice in Asia, and maize in South America. These spikes can prove to be most problematic for individuals, and shortages of staple crops results in mass hunger in developing countries.

Here in the United States, we spend about 10% of our annual income on food—not very much given how many calories we are able to consume with that amount.

In other wealthy countries, this number is closer to 15% or even 20%, but households in the developing world pour up to 50% to 60%, or more, of their income into food commodities. Because our foods tend to be processed and go through many hands to reach our plates, swings in crop prices are not reflected as immediately on American price tags. But internationally, a price hike for staple crops can be a very serious problem.

This food crisis was set off by a series of natural disasters—droughts in Australia and Canada, wildfires in Russia, floods in Pakistan—resulted in decreased global food production. However, the impact of these disasters has been compacted by longer-term problems that have been simmering worldwide. Population increases are putting a strain on food stores. Use of food crops for biofuel is redirecting growing land towards energy production. Demand for meat continues to rise, and increasingly more food crops are going towards raising livestock.

How can we address these problems? In the most recent issue of The Economist there's a special report on the question of feeding a world of 9 billion people in 2050. One of the report's suggestions was to focus on planting higher-yielding crops, so that the developing world can better feed itself. The U.N. would also like to see a shift in food aid—currently 80% of food aid is spent during emergencies. Redirecting this money to increasing domestic agriculture in developing countries might result in ongoing food security rather than volatile markets.

It is also important for us in the States to entertain the notion of a future with more expensive food. Our current system protects us from some market fluctuation, but it remains to be seen if and how this current price spike will affect long-term thinking about how we produce and consume food globally.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.