Last month, the World Bank issued a food prices report warning that food prices around the world have risen to dangerous levels, pushing tens of millions of already struggling people into extreme poverty and putting children worldwide at greater risk of malnutrition.
And last week, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization confirmed that global food prices reached record highs in February, and continue to rise, with no end in sight. This follows a previous U.N. FAO report in January, when the FAO warned that food prices had been higher in 2010 than in any year since the FAO started keeping track of food costs.
What is causing these persistent price increases across the globe? A number of factors have contributed to food price inflation:
Increased Global Demand for Food
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s World Population Clock, the global population is now approaching 7 billion. As the human population increases, so, of course, does the world’s demand for food.
But perhaps more importantly, where food availability and food prices are concerned, economic and technological improvements in developing nations have created a burgeoning new global middle class, with a strong daily appetite for certain foods that were once considered a luxury for most of the world’s people.
Demand for meat and dairy products has increased dramatically over the past decade in China, India and other emerging economic leaders in Asia. And when demand for meat and milk goes up, the price of grain rises, because grain that once went to feed people gets diverted to feed farm animals instead.
Climate Change-Fueled Natural Disasters
In 2010, a record heat wave led to rampant wildfires in Russia, destroying so much of the country’s wheat crop that the government banned wheat exports in alarm. That same year, unprecedented flooding in Pakistan devastated food production nationwide. Both disasters contributed significantly to higher food prices — and both were linked by scientists to global climate change.
This year, extensive flooding and typhoon damage in Australia and crop-killing frosts in Mexico already threaten to raise the prices of everything from wheat to tomatoes.
High Oil Prices
Whenever prices for oil rise, food prices tend to rise in tandem or soon after. Part of the price of food that consumers purchase at markets and grocery stores includes the cost of transporting that food from the place it was originally grown, and the price of transportation rises with the price of fuel. Also, industrial farms often use petroleum-based fertilizers on their crops, which become more expensive when oil prices are higher.
As protests and revolution sweep across North Africa and the Middle East, oil prices have skyrocketed on fears that oil-producing countries like Libya and Saudi Arabia might not be able to continue to provide an uninterrupted supply of fossil fuels to the rest of the world. Which brings us to another major factor currently influencing food prices…
In nations facing political crisis, food often becomes scarce due to the disruption of public services. Governments are generally responsible for overseeing imports, maintaining highways, preventing theft, etc., and when they are temporarily unable to perform those services efficiently due to conflict or changes in leadership, that can cause local food prices to rise rapidly, which in turn can lead to speculation by commodities investors that has the potential to drive up food prices worldwide.
What Ordinary People Can Do to Help Bring Down Food Prices
The continuing rise in global food prices may seem like a problem beyond the control of ordinary people, but there are some things the average consumer can do to help keep costs down.
Locally-produced food does not have to travel long distances from field to plate, decreasing the amount of fuel used in food transportation. Helping the food system conserve fuel in this way not only lowers the cost of food, but also helps prevent further climate change by reducing carbon emissions.
Buy Fair Trade
When farm workers in other nations earn fair living wages and work under safe conditions, their higher quality of life empowers them to be more involved as educated citizens, promoting democracy and political stability.
Grow Your Own
During World War II, the United States faced potential shortages of food and fuel as international trade was disrupted and the government tried to adequately supply U.S. soldiers overseas.
In response, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged American families to start edible gardens in backyards and unused empty lots. By the end of the war, these Victory Gardens were supplying 40 percent of U.S. produce.
There is no food more local than that grown in your own yard. Home gardening is an easy, healthy, eco-friendly way to lower your own family food budget while also helping to reduce the price of food worldwide.
Detail of photo of assorted grains by Fir0002, from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license.