The Global Food Crisis

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Men discuss the price of seafood in Cite Soleil, Haiti. Source: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Last week, as I did research for this segment, I swallowed a harsh dose of reality. Global prices of basic foods such as rice, wheat and corn have soared by as much as 45% since the end of 2006 — with much of that increase concentrated over the last few months. Last week, the U.N. World Food Program announced that increases in food prices could leave more than 100 million people hungry. Here I am, shoveling five spoonfuls of rice into my mouth for lunch alone, and that's more food than most kids in Haiti get to eat in two whole days! It's hard to wrap your mind around the realities of what economists are calling "the global food crisis," and what the U.N. has christened a "silent tsunami."

Tyler Hicks, a staff photographer for The New York Times, recently got back from a trip to Port-au-Prince. He saw children and parents sifting through heaps of trash, just to find overlooked morsels of food. But we're also hearing stories about pasta protests in Italy, and Costco stores rationing rice in the U.S. So how are these two seemingly disparate scenes — Haiti and Costco — related? And how did the situation get this bad so quickly?

Economist Jeffrey Sachs will break it down for us, and he'll offer some suggestions for how we can mitigate the damage. And we want to hear from you. How has the high cost of food affected your life? Have you had to give up some things you would normally buy, or are you literally having trouble putting food on the table?

Check out more pictures from Tyler's recent trip to Haiti here.



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"How has the high cost of food affected your life?"

It really hasn't. I'm a vegetarian who eats stuff like tofu, lentils and barley, and while they've gone up a few cents a bag, it hasn't affected me much.

I feel horrible, though, about the high price of rice! I've been following the global food crisis and have been horrified at the thought of all the starvation that must be happening/will happen.

I hope the economy recovers soon.

Sent by Robin | 3:11 PM | 4-28-2008

I am a working single mom. I am lucky I have a good job and not a lot of debt . Now that food and gas prices are rising, I am finding I have to use my credit card more and more on everyday things. I used to shop at Trader Joe's and other specialty grocery stores. Now I have to check the weekly sale prices on all the local stores and have had to cut back on gourmet type items. My son in a teen and eats more and more. I am not sure what next I can give up. I am quickly learning how to make food stretch from one meal to the next. We don't throw any left overs out, I am find creative ways to use them.
The food prices are keeping me up at night, as I see things getting worse not better.

Sent by sari nichols | 3:17 PM | 4-28-2008

The object is greed that is causing this crisis. When you have commodities speculators driving the costs of fuel costs up the cost of everything else follows the increase.

I put this squarely on the OPEC nations and there co-conspirators large oil companies for this crisis.

This is the beginning of the fall of our economy and our eventual downfall as a world leader.

Sent by Tom Martinez | 3:26 PM | 4-28-2008

In our home we are a single income family. Over the years, we've made a habit of trying to find out ways to maximize our ability to provide for ourselves. One of those steps was to begin a home garden. It is Spring time in the U.S. and one things that almost all Americans can begin to do is to plant and grow their own food. It has been a great blessing to our family and could help to reduce the national need for commercial foods.
Thank you

Sent by P~ | 3:26 PM | 4-28-2008

As an American I think higher gas prices and food prices could provide the needed push to make us a healthier country. People are still buying food, but with the higher prices they are buying less junk food, and instead are concentrating on healthier foods. And less driving also results in cleaner air and less gas being used. And I know so many more people who are now growing vegetable gardens. Something we have always done.

Sent by MotherLodeBeth | 3:34 PM | 4-28-2008

On speculation in commodity markets:

The funds piling money in tend to be ETF's and other "long only" instruments modeled on stock ownership. But commodities aren't stocks; speculators must go long *and* short. Otherwise, market distortions are strongly encouraged...

I personally think this is just one reason for rising prices, and thank you and Dr Sachs for the show.

Sent by Mallory Margueron | 3:36 PM | 4-28-2008

Mr. Sachs is incorrect on the energy balance and GHG cost of ethanol. There is quite a lot of information available showing that ethanol has a higher energy output that previously believed and that its GHG emissions over the lifecycle of the fuel is far less than gasoline.

Sent by Maggie Striz Calnin | 3:37 PM | 4-28-2008


Sent by Lewis Stackpole | 3:38 PM | 4-28-2008

Maybe this is a good opportunity for people to be a little creative and learn how to cook good, simple, healthy meals from basic ingredients. By planning ahead, shopping from a list, stocking up on sale items that you always need, and maybe even growing a small garden, we could all eat better for less--and do the planet a favor at the same time.

Sent by naomi | 3:38 PM | 4-28-2008

Why do we have an import tax of $0.51 per gallon on Brazillian ethanol?

Sent by Larry Jech | 3:38 PM | 4-28-2008

Sachs is right US farmers are making more money but wrong that they're profiting. Higher land rents besides inputs like fuel and fertilizer eat up the gains. Farmers are not better off than before.

Sent by Jeffery J. Smith | 3:41 PM | 4-28-2008

As a vegetarian, my food costs are low, but over the years my income has not kept up with rising rents, gas, utilities and everything else. Sometimes I eat nothing but rice for a week, two weeks at a time. Most of my income is consumed by the rent I pay. I do have a college degree but have never been given a chance to use it in a decent paying job. I work in retail, typically low paid work, where a lot of formerly well paid factory workers wind up, because retail jobs can't be sent to other countries.

Sent by Cris | 3:41 PM | 4-28-2008

I am a single working mom with no child support from the ex but I am very grateful that I am able to feed my kids and am so sorry for the people of Haiti. Are there any ideas for us to help? And yes, the cost of food has affected me and my family. I do what that one caller does who makes sure her kids get plenty first and eats. Our cup still runneth over though compared to so many other people in the world. Thank you N.P.R. for your shows.

Sent by Cheryl | 3:46 PM | 4-28-2008

The food crisis has even deeper roots in governments' lack of investment in small-farm sector, reliance on environmentally destructive industrial agricultural practices, unfair trade arrangements and trade liberalization policies, and Northern governments' dumping of cheap food in developing countries--these factors have destroyed rural farm communities, undermining their ability to produce food and contributing to worsening climate & water crises and poverty

Fortunately, the UN-led International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology for Development (IAASTD) has solutions. Concluded by 400+ scientists and approved on 12 April in Johannesburg by 60-some governments, the IAASTD calls for a radical transformation of global food & farming - increased investment and policy support towards agroecological and organic farming, recognition of the multifunctionality of agriculture, reform of inequitable trade, stricter regulation of corporate influence over food systems, ensuring the poor have access and control over resources, democratic governance and vastly increased local participation in identifying problems and seeking solutions.

Once again, the United States--one of only 3 governments that did NOT endorse the UN report--chose to remain a part of the problem instead of becoming a leader in the solutions.

-Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, Senior Scientist at Pesticide Action Network and Lead Author on the IAASTD Report.

Sent by Marcia Ishii-Eiteman | 3:46 PM | 4-28-2008

If consumers in the developed nations reduced their spending on rice, corn and wheat will it help the 100 million people that need access to cheaper food

Sent by Louis | 3:53 PM | 4-28-2008

Many people are probably thinking, "what can I do to help those who are really starving out there?" Well, there are lots of excellent organizations working to help those in Haiti and elsewhere who are most affected by higher prices, as well as groups working to get Congress to change the trade and agriculture policies that Jeff Sachs talked about, which are creating much of the problem in the first place. And there are solutions being discussed that we didn't hear about on the show -- from alternative fuels that don't disrupt the food supply, to better agricultural techniques, to simply eating less meat (which is grain-intensive to raise). You can stay informed of the latest on the crisis and find groups to get involved with at -- Our food crisis alert is at:

Sent by Jeffrey Allen, U.S. Managing Editor, | 3:54 PM | 4-28-2008

I was surprised that the 'expert' on NPR would be using the food for fuel argument against ethanol. First, the fact is that when corn is used to produce ethanol, it actually improves the value of what is left as livestock food. If we didn't take the ethanol out first, we would need to use energy to dry the corn before it could be fed. Secondly, a study by Merrill Lynch finds that due to the use of ethanol in U.S. fuel supplies (aprox 50% of our fuel contains ethanol) it has actually lowered the average cost of pump gas by about 50 cents per gallon. It is the cost of petroleum ($120/bl) that has pushed the cost of food ever higher. Ethanol is an important element of our energy foundation as we work to reduce our need for petroleum.

Sent by Jay | 3:54 PM | 4-28-2008

Larry Jech:
Call Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and ask him...

Sent by Mallory Margueron | 3:55 PM | 4-28-2008

Cattle, hogs and chickens all need grain. The farmers that raise them are also having to pay these increased grain prices and many are going out of business. Not all farmers are "getting rich".

Sent by Carolyn | 3:55 PM | 4-28-2008

Regarding the comments on ethanol: The figures I've seen indicate only a modest effect on the net accumulation of carbon dioxide. But blends may still make sense in terms of enhancing combustion efficiency and reducing carbon MONoxide (a moderate indirect greenhouse gas). What I have a problem with is broad-based incentives that reward the use of blends over ten percent. Not until we sort out our fuel economy issues and/or make cellulosic ethanol a commercial reality should we be trying to replace a significant percentage of the fuel supply (something probably unrealistic at today's usage levels).

Sent by Alex J | 4:03 PM | 4-28-2008

What food crisis? Last I checked, US citizens paid just 14% of their household budget for food, and I don't see that going up as I shop daily. As I listened to the woman (TOTN caller today) claiming she and her middle-class husband "buy food for our three kids, and eat whatever's left over," I drove past the most expensive grocery store in town, and read on their outdoor sign the notice that specials this week include 99-cent chicken breasts and dollar-49 lean ground beef.

I shop at a cheaper store, but those aren't bad sale prices...and they're no different from last month, or last year.

Given that there's a nickel's worth of corn in a big box of Corn Flakes, and that we've known for a few decades now that the lion's share of retail food cost is collected by processors and distributors (the famous "Middleman" we hear so much about) I think it's disingenuous to start getting excited about a "food crisis" in this country, at least for anyone but the very poorest citizens.

And I think every claim that it's due to the alternative-energy industry should be looked at very critically indeed.

Sent by Stella Shaffer (short "A" like "shatter") | 4:32 PM | 4-28-2008

Stella is correct. If one is able to shop around and stock up when staples go on sale one can still exist. Low income households who cant afford to do this and live in an apt so dont have the ability to plant a garden are the ones who have been hardest hit. They are also the ones who cant afford the healtiest foods so exist on these very staples that have gone up so much since they are the most filling at the cheapest cost.

Sent by jm | 5:25 PM | 4-28-2008

So far, no one has mentioned the real cause of this problem--overpopulation and population explosion.

Although our politicians, media pundits, and academics may not wish to mention or address the issue for fear of being politically incorrect (or for the fear of being seen as advocating abortion), in essence this is a Malthusian crisis. Contrary to benevolent universe premise and free market dogma and/or the notion that a God will take care of us, in reality we live in a world of finite resources. Oil is central to our economy and it is one of those finite resources.

Oil is used in the production of food (gasoline makes the tractors run), the packaging of food (aka plastic), and the shipping of food. Sadly, the oil is running out and we are rapidly approaching a state of "Peak Oil", a time when the demand for oil will outstrip the ability of oil wells to pump the dwindling resource out of the ground.

It has been said that the human mind is the ultimate resource, but unless someone invents an alternative energy source and better ways grow more food, the only real solution is to (humanely and peaceably) reduce the world's population.

The solution to the world's overpopulation crisis is birth control. Everyone could live better in a world with a much lower population which would mean that we would have more resources--more oil, more natural gas, more minerals, more clean air, more clean fresh water, more worthwhile real estate--per person.

Although this solution should be clear as day, it contradicts the premises of most religions, the benevolent universe premise, and free market dogma. That is why no politician will dare to mention the real problem nor the solution.

Sent by Frank the Underemployed Professional | 6:40 AM | 4-29-2008

Here in the states in areas like the San Joaquin Valley between Sacramento and below Fresno, so much valuable farm land has been sold to make room for McMansions. Why not do away with property taxes for any farmer who isn't a corporate farm, and thus allow small farms to do what they do best. Grow food. And stop building so many big houses that suck up our water which instead of going to water green grass in dry areas, should be going to grow food and provide drinking water.

Sent by MotherLodeBeth | 12:39 AM | 5-2-2008