Courtesy Reuters

The Politics of Hunger

How Illusion and Greed Fan the Food Crisis

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After many years of stability, world food prices have jumped 83 percent since 2005 -- prompting warnings of a food crisis throughout much of the world earlier this year. In the United States and Europe, the increase in food prices is already yesterday's news; consumers in the developed world now have more pressing concerns, such as the rising price of energy and the falling price of houses. But in the developing world, a food shock of this magnitude is a major political event. To the typical household in poor countries, food is the equivalent of energy in the United States, and people expect their government to do something when prices rise. Already, there have been food riots in some 30 countries; in Haiti, they brought down the prime minister. And for some consumers in the world's poorest countries, the true anguish of high food prices is only just beginning. If global food prices remain high, the consequences will be grim both ethically and politically.

Politicians and policymakers do, in fact, have it in their power to bring food prices down. But so far, their responses have been less than encouraging: beggar-thy-neighbor restrictions, pressure for yet larger farm subsidies, and a retreat into romanticism. In the first case, neighbors have been beggared by the imposition of export restrictions by the governments of food-exporting countries. This has had the immaculately dysfunctional consequence of further elevating world prices while reducing the incentives for the key producers to invest in the agricultural sector. In the second case,

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