STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on what's behind the increase and what nations, including the U.S., could do about it.
TOM GJELTEN: Joseph Glauber is chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
JOSEPH GLAUBER: Many households are buying raw rice, they're milling it themselves, so for them a big increase in rice prices or a big increase in wheat prices, you know, are translated into a sizable increase.
GJELTEN: World Bank president Robert Zoellick this week said he thinks the spiraling cost of food is an aggravating factor behind the protests in the Arab world, even if not the primary cause. Here was Zoellick discussing the unrest on NPR's DIANE REHM SHOW.
ROBERT ZOELLICK: You had a large unemployed population and people clearly fed up with the political system. But one of the reasons that I think this is an important issue today is, those countries are going through something between transitions and revolutions, and that's where I'm most concerned about food now.
GJELTEN: Abdolreza Abbassian of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization attributes the food shortages in part to bad weather.
ABDOLREZA ABBASSIAN: From Russia to Pakistan to U.S., Canada, North Europe, and before the year ended in Australia, so production of many crops were affected negatively.
GJELTEN: Economist Joseph Glauber points to big developing countries like China.
GLAUBER: I think 60 percent of all soybeans traded go to China right now, 40 percent of all cotton goes to China, and even things like vegetable oil, about a fifth of all vegetable oil.
GJELTEN: Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, says the justification for promoting ethanol production is that it means less dependence on foreign oil. But there is a cost.
BRUCE BABCOCK: It sets up basically a conflict between the perceived national security benefits of providing a substitute for imported crude oil versus the increased food prices. Because there's no doubt at all that expansion of the ethanol industry has increased the cost of producing meat, dairy, eggs, and food around the world.
GJELTEN: Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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