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Going beyond the lament

There has been no dearth of expressions of concern over the catastrophic consequences of the rising food prices for the global poor. Yet even as global organisations including the World Bank and the IMF have joined in the chorus, there is the realisation that there are no easy or quick fix solutions to the crisis. Soaring food prices have threatened food security and led to riots in quite a few countries. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food price s have increased by 75 per cent in dollar terms since 2000. The rise has been particularly pronounced in 2007. While the escalation in rice prices is fairly more recent, the prices of wheat, corn and many food products have been witnessing a surge since 2006. Quite ominously, the prices of wheat and rice have been scaling new highs even as their stocks are down to unprecedented levels. Stocks of rice are at their lowest since 1976. In the case of wheat, the figure is the lowest in about 50 years — the global stocks are enough to meet just five weeks of requirements. Geopolitical tensions among countries over food prices have increased. In practically all developing countries, rising up to the challenges posed by the soaring food prices has become the single most important item on their governments’ agenda.

The stakes are indeed very high. The World Bank President, Robert Zoellick has said that the rise in food prices could push 100 million people in developing countries deeper into poverty. Earlier, the IMF had warned that hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of starvation. While they emphasise the dimensions of the food crisis, the world bodies really do not offer any new plan of action. Thus the World Bank’s recently adopted “new deal” to tackle the crisis is a reiteration of well recognised interventions. Basically, it calls for expanding social security programmes targeted at the poor over the short-term and improving agricultural productivity in the long-run. However, exceptional situations such as the food crisis require the world organisations to go beyond such customary advice. Two factors aggravating the food shortage can be neutralised only through global cooperation. The switch from food crops to biofuels in the United States and the European Union, often by subsidising their farmers, is one of them. The pernicious influences of climate change on food production are well documented and they can be countered only with the active participation of the developed countries. The latter should also be persuaded to rethink their biofuel policies.

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