The problem of high and volatile food prices that have driven 44 million people in to poverty in recent months was debated at the World Bank’s Open Forum  – a two-hour webcast event on the food crisis incorporating feedback from 3,000 participants in a 24-hour chat and more than 500 suggestions and comments that flooded in from people in 91 countries before the event.
Panelists, including commodity market analysts, the head of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), academics, and the Rwandan Minister of Agriculture, debated the impact of market speculation, crops being used for biofuels instead of food, food waste, lack of infrastructure to get crops to market, fertilizer prices, and trade barriers.
Panelists also tackled solutions, such as sustainable farming to increase agricultural productivity, easing trade of staple foods, and the need for greater transparency in food stocks.
The event came on the heels of the latest World Bank Food Price Watch  report showing global food prices have risen 36% in the last year, led by maize (74%), wheat (69%) and soybeans (36%). Crude oil prices have increased 21% in the first quarter of 2011.
“We’re seeing a convergence of food and fuel markets in a way we’ve never seen. Over $70 a barrel, we know hunger will start rising at a very accelerated rate. When it’s over $100 a barrel we know we’re in a full-blown crisis,” said WFP Head Josette Sheeran.
Online participants in the event on the eve of the World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings related personal experiences with hunger and high food prices.
“But still what I could not understand is why we have all these food price hikes all of a sudden?” said Zeritu from Ethiopia in a comment submitted in the weeks prior to the Open Forum. “It has grown to be a puzzle to me....like all of a sudden it is out of control.”
“I know of two tuberculosis patients right now that are suffering for lack of food,” wrote acTBistas. “One in N igeria, Esther has no food to take her TB drugs or to feed her kids, and one in Tijuana, Mexico, where a mother is happy because her kid is taking TB treatment but sad because he is hungry and she has no money to buy food. Hunger is painful.”
They also offered solutions, such as encouraging shellfish farming, which “doesn’t need feed and can also help improve the water quality, providing extra ecosystem services,” said chat participant Jingjie.
“Given the need for dealing with hunger and nutrition, and also the opportunities to make agriculture a new source of jobs and a new source of income, this is the year to put food first,” said World Bank President Robert Zoellick in a video  preceding the panel discussion.
Watch the event and read the chat transcript at Open Forum: Food Crisis .