Feature Global food crisis

Can we feed the world?

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a270 (Published 12 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1336
  1. Karen McColl, freelance writer
  1. karen{at}karenmccoll.co.uk

Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s new special rapporteur on the right to food, spoke to Karen McColl about the current food crisis and what should be done about it

World leaders met in Rome last week to discuss coordinated international action to tackle the food price crisis currently causing widespread hunger and social unrest. The price of food commodities, such as rice and wheat, on international markets rose sharply in 2006 and 2007. Prices rose even more sharply in the first three months of 2008. In developing countries, where families spend as much as 60-80% of their income on food, such price increases have a dramatic impact.1 Low income countries that import more food than they export are worst affected. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation described 36 countries in crisis and, of these, 21 are African countries.2 Within countries, the poorest groups, both urban and rural, are hardest hit.

The crisis is caused by several factors affecting the balance between the demand for food and the available supply. Poor harvests in Australia, some Asian countries, and parts of Europe have contributed. In addition, grain stocks were very low. There are also, however, important long term structural causes. Although experts broadly agree on the factors involved (many of which are interrelated), there is less agreement on which factors have had the greatest impact.

Understanding the food price crisis

Soaring prices
  • International food commodity prices increased by an average of 83% over the past three years. In the year to March 2008, the price of corn rose by 31%. Rice and wheat prices rose by 74% and 130% respectively

  • Domestic prices— worst hit countries have seen rises of 30-40%

Rising demand
  • Population growth—More food is needed to feed the world’s population, growing by 75 million each year

  • Increased meat consumption—Urbanisation and income growth in India and …

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