IN January, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation announced that its food price index for December hit an all-time high, and the World Bank's food price index increased by 15 per cent between October 2010 and January 2011.
The prices of many commodities have surged exponentially to above the peak reached in 2008. Corn is now US$290 per tonne and oil is back above US$100 per barrel. Soaring food and energy prices now pose a threat to the fledgling impetus in the recovery of the world economy.
Increased food prices could aggravate poverty in developing countries like Jamaica, increasing the risks of political and social instability. India, for example, is struggling to cope with an 18 per cent annual food inflation rate.
Another food crisis appears imminent. Finance ministers from the Group of 20 (G20) leading economies met in Paris Friday to discuss the food crisis but failed to devise a plan to address this urgent issue.
We hope that the G20 will be more forthcoming, noting that in 2009, they pledged US$22 billion over three years, including a special fund at the World Bank, called the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme. That fund has received a pitiful US$350 million.
The demand for food — emanating from population growth (world population has doubled since 1970) — is pushing up prices because of the slow growth of global food supplies, the use of grain to fuel cars and the increasingly affluent populations of China and India.
China's economy is roughly 20 times larger than it was 30 years ago and India's is roughly four times what it was 20 years ago.
The expansion of supply has been hampered by soil erosion, inadequate irrigation, depletion of aquifers, the loss of cropland for residential uses, and insufficient credit to small farmers. These ongoing trends have been compounded by human-induced climate change which is taking a toll in the form of floods and droughts in key production areas.
The severity of the impact will be greatest in the net food importing regions, such as the Caribbean.
Mr Jeffrey Sachs argues that Africa is the most vulnerable because there is already widespread hunger and because the continent has been bypassed by the Green Revolution. The yield of 1.1 tonnes per hectare in tropical Africa is less than a third of the yields achieved in Asia and Latin America. Mr Lester R Brown of the Earth Policy Institute notes that each day there are 219,000 additional mouths to feed.
To cope with escalating food prices, Jamaica has to increase domestic food production and substitute local foodstuffs for the increasingly costly imported items. Farmers have an opportunity to expand production because the jump in the cost of imported food will increase the demand for local food. Increased production could save foreign exchange, generate employment and improve rural development. Let us see if the agricultural community will rise to the challenge.
Substitution can only deal with a part of the problem because there are no easy substitutes for wheat and corn for human consumption and for products, notably chicken, which depend on animal feed made from imported grain.
Consumers can make a significant contribution if in making their choice of food they spend their money wisely in both economic and nutritional terms. When we consume locally produced food we employ Jamaicans, and when we eat imported food we employ foreigners and pay them in foreign exchange.