Bare necessities

Globally, a basket of basic food—meat, grain, vegetables and fruit—the bare necessities for a balanced diet so to speak, is 37 per cent more expensive than it was this same time last year. This is according to a recent report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), though the average housewife who shops with a budget would have come to the same conclusion sans research.

The World Bank, too, is warning that global food prices have hit dangerous levels, particularly in poor countries where the prices of many key staples have jumped by more than 50 per cent in six months. World Bank researchers say they take a different approach to monitoring food prices from the FAO. The UN agency tends to follow global price changes, such as moves on commodity markets, whereas the World Bank says that it focuses on local prices and also measures the importance of each commodity to the diet of people in that country.

Here at home, farmers were recently being encouraged to take advantage of the hike in the price of rice on the international market and produce more for export. One would hope that they have been making full use of the opportunity since they are also consumers and would be required to pay more for flour and other items. They too would be affected by the 37 per cent increase in the basket of bare necessities/50 per cent hike in key staples.

As far back as 2007, the BBC and CNN had been reporting on dire food shortages in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Austria, Hungary, Guinea Conakry, Mauritania, Senegal and Mexico complete with footage of in some cases long queues, empty supermarket shelves and often half-starved children. While these crises were eventually overcome to some extent in the countries mentioned, they have been popping up elsewhere, keeping the UN’s World Food Programme and non-governmental organizations busy.

The rising cost of food also helped spark deadly riots this year in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, and in Mozambique last year. In an attempt to buck what has now become a worrying trend, agriculture ministers of the G20 countries began a meeting in Paris, France yesterday which will specifically address rising food prices and finding solutions.

So far as finding solutions are concerned, the UN has appointed a special rapporteur on ‘the right to food’ and he has called on G20 leaders to regulate the markets for agricultural products in order to make them more transparent. It has been argued that financial speculation on food commodities causes prices to spike and perhaps G20 leaders can be instrumental in curbing this. It bears mentioning, however, that no nation, regardless of how wealthy or influential it is, can regulate the weather, and climate change has been responsible to some extent for the increase in certain food prices.

It has also been stated that the move by some countries to replace fossil fuels with biofuels has seen dramatic increases in the price of food and this is another area that the G20 ministers can address at their meeting which ends today.

Agricultural researchers have been advocating changes in the way farming is done, to take global warming into consideration. They have pointed to the need for the development of seeds that are flood, drought and disease resistant; greater use of environmentally-friendly fertilisers and soil additives; and soil-less farming where possible, all of which would help to mitigate the current impacts on farming. All of the above will incur costs, which developing countries would be hard-pressed to find, but which the G20 countries can surely place on their agenda in terms of not only financing these changes in their own countries, but also in providing the wherewithal—through technical assistance and aid or loans—for poor nations to do the same.

A fourth solution would be upping the ante on genetically modified foods, in which case G20 countries would need to bring pressure to bear on huge first-world corporations who patent GM seeds to protect their bottom line, thereby insuring they keep dibs on prices. In addition, since the long-term effects of GM foods on the body and the environment are still not known, some persons are leery about venturing into this still murky water.

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