Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Charting food price shock, and the World Bank’s economy with truth

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Chart source: World Bank (2011), ‘Responding to Higher and More Volatile World Food Prices’ Development Committee Paper prepared by the Agriculture and Rural Development Department using data from FAOSTAT for net cereal imports as a share of consumption and the USDA for food share in household expenditures.

The World Bank’s Food Price Watch for 2012 August has been released (it is a part of the Poverty Reduction and Equity Group’s Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network). The Watch has in its overview mentioned prices of internationally traded maize and soybeans reaching all-time peaks in July. The rise in prices of wheat – comparable to the 2011 peaks – and the relative stability of the prices of rice have also been mentioned.

The Watch has said: “World Bank experts do not currently foresee a repeat of 2008; however negative factors — such as exporters pursuing panic policies, a severe el Niño, disappointing southern hemisphere crops, or strong increases in energy prices — could cause significant further grain price hikes such as those experienced four years ago.” This idea – of no repeat of 2008 – is plain wrong. The food price spike crisis of 2007-08 did in fact never go away, it subsided for some months, and has this year entered a new phase of pain for consumers particularly those in rural districts and the urban poor, wherever they may be.

As the chart (whose implications ought to be more seriously considered by the Watch, especially since the chart is a World Bank device itself) shows, countries in the Middle East and North and Sub-Saharan Africa are most vulnerable to this global shock. “They have large food import bills, their food consumption is a large share of average household spending, and they have limited fiscal space and comparatively weaker protective mechanisms,” the Watch has said.

Ideas such as ‘fiscal space’ and ‘protective mechanisms’ are not automatically translatable into household terms, and thus have no meaning for those who bear the food inflation burden first and the most. The Watch indeed has said that “domestic food prices in these regions have also experienced sharp increases even before the global shock due to seasonal trends, poor past harvests, and conflict”. Naturally, local circumstances determine how high domestic prices will be pushed from much higher international prices.

In addition to their effects on prices, previous droughts in developing countries have had severe economic, poverty and nutritional impacts, turning transitory shocks into lifetime and inter-generational perils, the 2012 August Food Price Watch has said, and this is certainly painfully true. The problem with the World Bank view (and practice) is when it becomes visible in the Watch with a statement like: “In such contexts, investments in drought-resistant crop varieties have provided large yield and production gains.” No, we do not want to see “investments in drought-resistant crop varieties” which only means thrusting GM seed into the fields of bullied smallholder farmers and GM food into the shops from which low-income households must buy their daily food basket.

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