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Spike in world food prices: It’s more than bad weather

January 21, 2011

A global index for food prices, as measured by the UN, reached a record high last month. This on the heels of a food crisis in 2007-08. The weather isn’t the only culprit — or solution.

Of all the world headlines that Sen. Richard Lugar could have highlighted this week – the visit of China’s president in Washington, for instance, or the revolt in Arab Tunisia – the most burning issue for him was … alfalfa.

The plant, used for animal feed, was the surprising topic of the senator’s opening remarks at a Monitor breakfast with reporters Jan. 18. Alfalfa holds a special interest for this active Indiana farmer who is also the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Alfalfa, he notes, is one example of why world food prices have risen so sharply – the second such rise in just over two years.

Last month the global food price index reached a record high, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization, a United Nations body. It surpassed the levels of the last food crisis in 2007-2008, when rising prices caused riots in more than 30 countries.

The human misery from unaffordable – or unavailable – food isn’t as widespread this time, because the price of rice – a staple for more than 3 billion people – is relatively stable. Also, Africa and Asia have seen some good harvests, helping feed local populations.

But prices have risen steeply on corn, sugar, vegetable oil, and meat. Riots have broken out in a few countries such as Algeria, and high food costs played a role in the protests that toppled the Tunisian government last week. Food price inflation takes a human toll, and a political and economic one, as well.

Bad weather had a lot to do with this most recent surge, but the point Lugar seemed to be making was that floods and drought are not the only causes of “food insecurity.” He pointed to the environmental tussle in the US over genetically modified alfalfa as holding a lesson for Africa, which strongly resists “GM” seeds and crops.

Biologically altered seed, resistant to pests or drought, can safely increase yields. The senator has seen it on his own family farm of 604 acres, which produced 40 bushels to the acre when he was a boy and now produce 160 bushels.

World population is expected to grow from 6 billion to more than 9 billion over the next 40 years. Many forces affect the ability to feed all those people, including climate change, the diversion of agricultural land to produce biofuels, and government interference in markets.

The diversity of the problems means a diversity of solutions, and there are many: wider use of higher-yielding seed; more emphasis on locally grown food in developing countries, especially in Africa – and investment in the roads and irrigation needed to support it; urban farming as populations move to cities; measures to mitigate agricultural waste; and open global markets.

But it takes vigilance for the international community to stay focused on such a wide array of tools (and we’ve hardly listed them all here). Spikes in food prices remind the world to pay attention to this long-term issue. So does the senator from Indiana.

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