Food prices in international markets have spiked three times in the past five years: in mid-2008, early 2011 and mid-2012 (Figure 1). The first of those spikes – when rice prices more than doubled – prompted urban riots in dozens of developing countries. It may have contributed even to the unrest that led to the Arab Spring. The most common government response was to alter trade restrictions so as to insulate the domestic market from the international price rise. And the most common justification for that action (tighter export restrictions or lower import barriers on food staples) was that it would reduce the number of people who would fall into poverty. Not only are food prices politically sensitive, but many poor people are vulnerable to higher food prices, because the poorest people spend a large fraction of their incomes on food.
In the last five years, higher food prices have provoked government interventions in agricultural markets across the globe, often in the name of protecting the poor. But do higher food prices actually hurt the rural poor?
Food price spikes, price insulation, and poverty
This paper looks into the impact of changes in restrictions on staple foods trade during the 2008 food price crisis on global food prices and also analyzes the impact of such insulating behavior on poverty in various developing countries and globally.
Has the rise in international food prices since the mid 2000s hurt the poor, or helped them? Until recently, everything we knew about this topic came from simulation analyses rather than survey data. Simulation approaches invariably predict that poverty and food insecurity increases as the result of higher food prices, but there are many reasons why these predictions might not eventuate. On the other hand, standard household surveys yield information only after long lag periods. In light of these constraints, in some of my work I use an indicator of self-assessed food security from the Gallup World Poll (GWP). Since 2005, Gallup has survey men and women in a large number of developing countries and asked them (among other things) whether they have had “any trouble affording sufficient food in the last 12 months?” I take the percentage of respondents who answer yes to this question as a measure of national food insecurity.
The latest Global Monitoring Report analyzes the impact of recent food price spikes on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), paying particular attention to the negative consequences that temporary food price shocks may have on nutrition.
Nutritional outcomes are directly linked to the MDG on hunger (MDG 1.c) and indirectly to most of the remaining development targets, through its effects on cognitive skills of young children and consequently on human capital accumulation. Unfortunately, progress in fighting undernourishment is considerably lagging across nearly all developing regions (figure 1).
While the world’s population doubled in the last fifty years, global food production trebled – especially in the staple grains that form the mainstay of the poor man’s diet. Yet, over a billion people in the world still go hungry - why?
As the World Bank’s Global Monitoring Report of 2012 shows, it is not that the world as a whole lacks rice, wheat or maize, but produce from food abundant areas does not always make it to food deficit ones – i.e. it is not so much the availability of food that matters as access to it.
Movement of food within a country or across its borders remains hampered by dismal infrastructure and inefficient regulations, and shackled to the dictates of political economy. Yet, trading food can feed the poor at lower costs and help countries weather shocks to local production.
High food prices, especially when they have increased suddenly and unexpectedly, have been found to hurt many poor people around the world. The Global Monitoring Report 2012: Food Prices, Nutrition, and the Millennium Development Goals (GMR) finds that the food price shock that peaked in early 2011 pushed nearly 50 million people into poverty. On one level, this is not surprising—the poorest people, after all, spend nearly all of their income on food. But on further reflection, this result is not so obvious— three quarters of the world’s poor are rural and the majority of them depend on farming for their livelihoods. The problem is that—unlike farmers in rich countries—many poor farmers in developing countries don’t produce enough food to meet their families’ needs. These net buyers of food are hurt by higher food prices even though they are farmers.
Three years from the deadline for reaching the Millennium Development Goals, two-thirds of countries will not reach MDGs 4 and 5 (child and maternal mortality, respectively). And now the second food price rise in three years is a wake-up call for the development community.
In this context, the Global Monitoring Report 2012: Food Prices, Nutrition, and the Millennium Development Goals examines some of the possible consequences of food price increases, such as a rise in poverty and undernourishment1. Households cope through a variety of mechanisms, including: eating less nutritious diets and then less food; making more household members work (women and children); and not seeking health care when ill. The most vulnerable (the poor, children, and pregnant women) bear the brunt of these adverse impacts. Moreover, as countries seek to maintain food prices, some increase food price subsidies and cut into other services.
How are communities around the world coping with the higher and more volatile food prices? What is the impact on poverty, or on nutritional outcomes? And, how should policymakers respond to such price spikes that can eat away at already-tight budgetary resources?
These are only some of the questions that a key World Bank-IMF report is delving into as it provides an annual assessment on progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well as the challenges which developing countries face in achieving them.