A deafening warning

(China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-08 07:41
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The record rise in world food prices last month is not only a prelude to a possible "food price shock" in the coming months, but also a blatant warning that the international community cannot afford to ignore. The dire consequences of long-term climate change are more imminent now and divided response to the global financial crisis could make them worse.

Early this week, the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization announced that its benchmark food price index had jumped to 214.7 points in December, above the previous peak of 213.5, which was set in June 2008 and triggered food riots in some poor countries.

With the world economy showing little sign of emerging out of the mess any time soon, the record increase in food prices is certainly shocking.

The 2008 food crisis was a "silent tsunami" for the world's poor. So, what will happen if food prices remain high over the next several months? The obvious answer is: The number of hungry people across the world, about 1 billion according to UN estimates, will almost certainly increase.

Hence, the international community should prepare to tackle a food crisis similar to that in 2008. For the moment, that means policymakers across the globe should make joint efforts to prevent panic over food prices both at home and in the global market.

But to prevent such food crises from recurring, the international community must first recognize that our future is likely to be affected by extreme weather more seriously than feared earlier if we continue to drag our feet in the fight against climate change.

The looming food crisis calls for a stronger sense of urgency than what negotiators, especially those from developed countries, have shown at UN climate change conferences in recent years.

Besides, soaring world food prices also highlight the menace of super-loose monetary policies that some rich countries have adopted to let rapid inflation erode the real value of their debt burden. Excessive liquidity from developed countries has pushed up commodity prices in the world market and created considerable inflationary pressure on developing countries. This is unfair to developing countries, which are relatively poor and suffer a lot more from food-led inflation.

As the world's most populous country, China can draw some comfort from its bumper harvest last year, which was also its seventh consecutive rich harvest. The country's success in feeding one-fifth of the world's population with less than 10 percent of global arable land shows that its unremitting efforts to boost agricultural production have paid rich dividends.

But Chinese policymakers cannot assume that such favorable conditions will continue. Rapid urbanization and demographical changes in the country will make it increasingly difficult to further raise grain output.

Therefore, China should take the record rise in world food prices as a call to double its efforts to improve farm productivity.

(China Daily 01/08/2011 page5)