Outside editorial: As food prices increase, American security is at stake

Posted: Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The following editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported last week that its Food Price Index — a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities — rose in February for the eighth consecutive month. Worldwide, food is more expensive now than it’s been since the index was started in 1990.

It’s a problem here. The food-at-home index rose 2.1 percent in the last year, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. It’s going to get worse. Joseph Glauber, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief economist, last month predicted record prices for corn, wheat and soybeans in the crop year ahead. That’s good news for farmers, but as costs are passed down the supply chain, food prices could rise an additional 3 percent to 4 percent over the rest of the year.

Things are far worse elsewhere. More than 1 billion of the world’s 6.1 billion people can’t afford enough to eat. High food prices are one of the root causes of unrest in Africa and the Middle East. The World Bank estimates that since last June, rising food prices have pushed 44 million people into “extreme poverty” — living on less than $1.25 a day.

The percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty actually has been falling since 1990, in large part because of major economic gains in China and the rest of East Asia and the Pacific.

But that has brought increased demand for (a) oil, critical for food production, and (b) animal protein. Animals are a hugely inefficient means of processing grain into food.

Add to that using corn for biofuel; diminished government-purchased food stockpiles; erratic weather patterns that brought extreme drought in Russia, China and elsewhere; and profiteering in the commodities markets. The result is a world food shortage.

One other factor: the worldwide financial collapse of 2008-2009. Western governments are retrenching. One result is that the special World Bank fund set up in 2008 to boost worldwide food production has received only about 2 percent of the $22 billion promised by the G-20 group of developed nations.

The United States has delivered only $66.6 million of the $3.5 billion it promised, and that was when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

Now Republican budget cutters have targeted “foreign aid” for the knife. The Obama administration’s entire foreign operations budget request for the current year is $36.4 billion, less than 1 percent of the total U.S. budget. That includes not just food and humanitarian relief, but military assistance, economic development, narcotics control, health programs and credit resources.

The budget request for the two major food programs — Food for Peace and the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program — was about $1.9 billion. Before cooler heads prevailed, House Republicans wanted to cut that to $1 billion. But this year’s budget battles aren’t over yet.

U.S. food assistance programs are flawed. Often there is no cooperation by local governments. U.S.-provided food can displace local agriculture. The requirement that 75 percent of food assistance be shipped on the few remaining U.S.-flagged vessels raises costs and reduces effectiveness.

These flaws can and should be addressed, but not by turning our back to a hungry world. In large part, the future security of this nation depends on the present food security elsewhere.

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