Soaring Food Prices Threaten Progress

Food prices around the world have fallen a bit since they set records this spring, which triggered riots and angry protests in dozens of countries from Haiti to Egypt. But aside from that small blessing, they're still higher than they've ever been — and the prices are starting to take a toll.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Agriculture Department, international prices for major commodities such as grains and vegetable oils are hovering at "historic highs of more than 60 percent above levels just 2 years ago."

And analysts are trying to predict what will happen next.

Some predict that prices will drop before long, since they often go up and down in cycles. But evidence suggests that the food crisis is already so serious that life for many people will never go back to "normal."

Sabotaging Progress

Those who chronically live at the margins are among the first facing a crisis. The United Nations estimates that roughly 800 million people don't know day to day where they're going to find food. While they are not starving, they don't eat enough to remain truly robust and healthy — and now record food prices are pushing some of them over the brink.

Countries like Ethiopia, for instance, have suffered horrific droughts and famines throughout history, but veteran relief specialists like Marc Nosbach, deputy country director for Save the Children, say the current combination of problems poses a "very difficult situation that we haven't witnessed before."

Carol Miller, Save the Children's director of policy and communication, says she and other staff members have found that the price of dried corn — a local staple — has exploded 1,000 percent in local markets since last year.

Relief specialists say even some families that can usually afford to feed their children are having trouble feeding them adequately now. Relief groups can't rush to their rescue, in some cases, because international food prices have soared so high that the groups can't afford to buy enough food to fill the gap.

Nosbach says one of the most tragic aspects of the mounting crisis is that Ethiopia has done impressive work over the past decade building the economy and society — so much that the World Bank has hailed the country for its "strong economic growth" and "human development." The number of students in primary school more than doubled, according to the World Bank, and child mortality was "almost cut in half."

But now record high food prices are sabotaging that progress. Nosbach says his organization's feeding centers are seeing growing numbers of children who are so chronically undernourished that, unless the crisis resolves in the next few months, they will suffer permanent physical and mental disabilities, such as chronic illness and lower IQ.

"A lot of the efforts we normally do in the development work of providing schools and education are being undermined," Nossbach says. Development specialists say they are seeing similar danger signs in other countries, too.

'Something Close To A Revolution'

But there is an even more important reason why many analysts are concerned about the long-term prognosis in the food industry. They say even if prices drop in the short term — whether in the next few months or years — the world is changing in profound ways that could disrupt the food supply for a generation.

For instance, a network of researchers associated with New York University and Chatham House, a leading British think tank, warns that the growing demand for both food and oil as well as depletion of groundwater and climate change all threaten to push food prices to permanently high levels over the next few decades.

Alex Evans, one of the researchers, says the world's leaders could head off a crisis by launching "something close to a revolution" — they could focus on new kinds of energy, develop agriculture in poor countries and also reform world trade so it doesn't subsidize some people at the expense of others.

But so far, "I do not think that world leaders have the bold vision that ultimately will be needed," Evans says. He points to the recent G-8 summit in Japan as a missed opportunity.

There, the world's most powerful leaders declared that "we are deeply concerned that the steep rise in global food prices coupled with availability problems in a number of developing countries is threatening global food security ... and today renew our commitment to address this multifaceted and structural crisis."

That's not much different from what President John F. Kennedy told the World Food Congress in 1963 — almost half a century ago.

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