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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Global Food Crisis

Has the Food Crisis Abated?: A Q&A with Joachim von Braun, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute

Although the financial crisis has relieved food pressure somewhat, IFPRI's von Braun argues that the hunger is just beginning
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©iStockphoto.com/Tobias Helbig

The price of staple foods—wheat, rice, corn—more than doubled over the course of the last year. Food riots swept poorer nations from Bangladesh to Haiti, and some countries, such as India and Vietnam, imposed limits on crop exports.

But staple prices have fallen in recent months, part of a general fall in commodity prices as part of the ongoing financial crunch. Does that mean the food crisis has passed?

ScientificAmerican.com's David Biello spoke about the crisis with Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) headquartered in Washington, D.C., an organization seeking an end to hunger and poverty through appropriate local, national and international policy.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]


Earlier this year there was a widespread perception of a food crisis as grain and other food commodity prices soared, accompanied by food riots in Haiti and elsewhere. But recently those prices have dropped. Has the crisis passed?
Not at all. Only some of the elements and causes of the crisis have changed. Prices came down in the international commodity markets and that helps import-dependent poor countries. But in many countries the international price change is not quickly passed on to the domestic markets. For instance, in many African countries [prices] remain far above long-term trends. Now the financial crisis comes on top of the price crisis. Capital for investment in agriculture is very limited and employment and income of the poor is reduced in the recession. Hunger will increase further.

What was responsible for this crisis?
The [food] price crisis in 2007–2008 stemmed from long-term neglect of agricultural investment, especially investment in research and development; the financial crisis in the second half of 2008 stemmed from fundamentally different causes—flawed regulatory regimes in banking and finance—but the two crises have fed on each other. Although the food and financial crises developed from different underlying causes, they are becoming intertwined in complex ways through their implications for macroeconomic stability, food security and political security. Because the two crises are interconnected, a coordinated response is needed to alleviate the double blow on the poor.

Why can't we produce enough food and/or get food to where it is needed?
We can grow enough food but currently don’t. Greater investment in research and development [R&D] is crucial for promoting pro-poor agricultural growth. Even though spending on agricultural R&D is among the most effective types of investment for promoting growth and reducing poverty, such spending has stagnated since the mid-1990s. A recent study by IFPRI shows that if investments in public agricultural research doubled from US$5 [billion] to US$10 billion from 2008 to 2013, agricultural output would increase significantly and millions of people would emerge from poverty. If these R&D investments are targeted at the poor regions of the world—sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—about 282 million people could come out of poverty by 2020.

Can a green revolution be brought to Africa? And can the green revolution in Asia be sustained?
Yes and yes. The focus in Africa needs to be on dry lands and making quality seeds and fertilizer available to the small farm sector, and to improve market functioning. In Asia the focus needs to be on water management and irrigation as well as smooth diversification into high value crops, especially fruits and vegetables, oilseeds and on the animal production sector.

What is needed to solve this problem once and for all?
We need attention to three actions: a long term commitment to enhanced agricultural productivity; action…[to]…reduce market volatility—in other words agricultural commodity markets, not only financial markets, must be part of reformed regulatory systems to move out of the crisis and avoid future turmoil; and attention to expand social protection and child nutrition action. Attention in all these three cases means more investment and aid and strong implementation of the actions.

What do you anticipate in the next six months, next few years, and in the long term?
In 2008 with the onset of the food and financial crises, growth has slowed and optimistic projections have been scaled down. Low economic growth will have negative second-round effects for investment and productivity, with direct ramifications for food prices and food security around the globe. IFPRI analyses from 2005 to 2020 compare a scenario of continued high economic growth and maintained productivity and investments in agriculture with two recession scenarios. In both recession scenarios economic growth is reduced by 2 to 3 percentage points depending on world regions, but the scenarios differ in terms of investments. In one scenario investment is maintained and in the other it is cut by 20 percent as we probably have to expect.

Under that scenario, the prices of major cereals will increase significantly again soon. In 2020 maize prices will be 27 percent higher than under the baseline scenario. A next, even bigger food crisis would come along soon [after] under these circumstances.

Climate change will add to the precarious situation. 16 million more children will be malnourished globally by 2020 compared with the baseline scenario. This can and must be prevented. The poor need a bailout through agricultural growth, stable food markets and protection of their basic nutrition.

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