Many countries use trade policy to protect their own consumers from spikes in international food prices. It turns out that this well-intentioned practice can actually do more harm than good. During food price spikes -- such as those in mid-2008, early 2011 and mid-2012 – governments restricted the export of food staples or lowered barriers to importing them. They hoped to keep their domestic prices of rice, wheat, maize, and oilseed low, reasoning that this would help their poor and stop people from falling into poverty. But there is new evidence that, while the practice kept each country’s domestic prices down relative to the world prices at the time, it contributed to the higher international prices that were the source of concern. In a World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, “Food Price Spikes, Price Insulation, and Poverty,” we explore this phenomenon and find that it did not reduce global poverty in 2008. On the contrary, we estimate it may have increased poverty slightly (by 8 million people).
Agriculture and Rural Development
About "Notes From the Field": With this occasional feature, we let World Bank professionals who are conducting interesting trade-related projects around the globe explain some of the challenges and triumphs of their day-to-day work. The views expressed here are personal and should not be attributed to the World Bank. All interviews have been edited for clarity.
The interview below was conducted with Josaphat Kweka, a Senior Economist in the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (PREM) network who is currently in Washington, D.C., on developmental assignment with Africa Trade Practice Group. Before joining the Bank in 2007, Mr. Kweka was a Senior Research Fellow with the Economic and Social Research Foundation (ESRF), which is one of the major policy think-tanks in Tanzania. There he conducted economic policy research on various topics including trade, poverty, and regional integration. He spoke with us about the World Bank’s efforts since 2008 to assist the Government of Tanzania set up its Special Economic Zones (SEZs) Program, which has evolved as one of the key interventions to help the country address job creation and competitiveness challenges. He also addressed this topic with Tom Farole in a Policy Note, “Institutional Best Practices for Special Economic Zones: An Application to Tanzania.”
A large increase in crude oil prices stands out among numerous factors to explain most of the jump in food prices over the last decade. Indeed, as we found in a recent World Bank study, oil prices were more important to food prices than several other long-term price drivers, including exchange rates, interest rates and income. This finding has important implications for policy and for governments hoping to mitigate the negative effects of food price swings.
Initially, the post-2004 commodity price increases bore resemblance to the temporary increases of the 1950s (Korean War) and the 1970s (oil crisis). But it is becoming clear that the current situation has a more permanent character. Most commodity prices are now two or three times higher than they were a decade ago. Indeed, nominal prices of energy, fertilizers, and precious metals tripled between the two time periods we compared (1997-2004 and 2005-2007). Metal prices went up by more than 150 percent in that time, and most food prices doubled.
Maria knows she is good at selecting ripe tomatoes, but she doesn’t know any women who own nurseries like the one where she works in Honduras. Susan does housekeeping for a hotel in Kenya, but there is little chance that she would ever lead a safari. Salma, at a call center in Egypt, can calm down angry customers, but she has never seen a female manager in her office.
Global value chains (GVCs) are essential to modern trade, and women’s labor is essential to many products and services that are traded across countries. But many limitations hold women back from participating more fully and equally to men in this important and growing global labor force, as we show in a collaborative project by the International Trade Department and the Gender Division at the World Bank. Though the names above are fictional, the situations are representative of what we found in case studies in the horticulture sector in Honduras, the tourism sector in Kenya and the call center sector in the Arab Republic of Egypt.
In February, the United Nations named 2013 the Year of Quinoa and made the president of Bolivia and the first lady of Peru special ambassadors to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The World Bank joined in with a kick-off event and celebration of Bank-funded work that is helping Bolivian quinoa farmers bring their product to market. The focus on this nutritious “super-food,” which is grown mainly in the Andean highlands, is an effort to decrease hunger and malnutrition around the world.
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa) has long had good-for-you credentials. In 1993, a NASA technical report named it a great food to take into space. (“While no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom.”) The pseudo-grain –which is more closely related to beets and spinach than to wheat or corn – has been promoted in recipes distributed by the National Institutes of Health, the Mayo Clinic and the American Institute for Cancer Research. In fact, quinoa already has done quite well on the world stage. Global import demand has increased 18-fold in the last decade, mainly due to consumption in Europe, Canada, and the U.S.
As we gather in kitchens and dining rooms during this two-month stretch of eating and charity, let us pause for a moment to review the state of food trade in Africa: how fares cross-border commerce in key crops on a continent with pockets of harsh weather and unpredictable politics? How goes the traffic in grains and tubers?
It’s clear that prices are high, following the February 2011 peak worldwide. The price of maize in Nairobi has tripled this year alone, while the price of a 50 kg bag of rice in Dakar has risen from $36 to $43.50. These spikes can be blamed partly on increased demand for food crops – including for biofuel production in Europe and the US. They are also due to supply-side factors, such higher energy prices which impact transportation and fertilizer costs, and weak harvests in large exporting countries.