The average global cost of a basket of staples, including wheat, rice, vegetable oils and meats, has surpassed levels in 2008, when price spikes led to violence in Cameroon, Haiti, and several other nations. While many of the current pressures on prices are temporary, including bad harvests in Russia, Ukraine, Canada, and Argentina, the current food shortages also have far more permanent roots. The rising demand for food in India and China, for instance, will not level off anytime soon. According to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, global food production will have to increase by 70 per cent to meet rising demand by 2050.
What each country does to steel itself against domestic shortages and price rises often makes matters worse for the rest of the world. Russia, for instance, has extended a ban on wheat exports to keep prices low. India has prohibited the export of grain for the same reason. What are nations who rely on those exports to do?
Agricultural subsidies in many nations also serve to limit global food supply and distort global prices. The United States, for instance, provides incentives for farmers to grow crops that can be used as biofuels. Nearly a quarter of America's agricultural capacity is now devoted to producing something other than food. To keep the price of certain crops high, the US also pays certain farmers not to grow or bring their harvest to market.
For its part, the European Union allows for import barriers and export subsidies throughout its agricultural sector. Subsidies for European nations' produce mean that it can be sold cheaply in the developing world, starving their farmers out of the market. More importantly, these policies have had a long-term effect of discouraging the progress and modernisation of agricultural production in the developing world.
In order to grapple with the long-term challenges of meeting the growing global demand for food, more must be done to increase the world's food supply. While the policies of nations in the developed world have had the effect of keeping food cheap there for decades, low prices only hide a reality that cannot be ignored for the long-term. Persistent and de-stabilising food shortages will not be avoided unless countries spend less on subsidies and more on production.
For years, the world's wealthiest countries have done what benefits them financially. The rising global demand for food means that cooperation must replace the protectionism that is so common, and so dangerous, today.